November 29, 2013

November 22, 2013

November 14, 2013

The Birds: Boycott

Boycott

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FordWatch: RoFo Goes Shakespeare

Tonight we went to see the Royal  Shakespeare Company theater-in-cinemas production of Richard II starring David Tennant. Beforehand there was a featurette-style intro including an interview with director Gregory Doran. When he described the title character as desperately clinging to power despite all sense, mordant laughter rolled through the Toronto audience. Followed by another knowing guffaw as Richard was described as a petulant, self-pitying figure. However, in the play itself, we did not see the implicitly promised soliloquy in which the embattled leader apologized for lying about his crack intake but promised to move on regardless.

November 05, 2013

FordWatch: Doug Ford Lashes Out at Police Chief

In a move so brazen I’m having a harder than usual time maintaining my satirical detachment, Toronto councilor Doug Ford, brother and enabler-in-chief to drain-circling Mayor Rob Ford, has now called on Police Chief Bill Blair to resign. His offenses? Having described the Ford crack video to the press, and having quasi-rescinded Ford’s invite to the annual police gala. Ford smears Blair as unaccountable because he went on a fishing trip with a Ford-approved police board appointee.

In a statement that in no way encourages us to recall his well-documented former occupation as a mid-tier Etobicoke hash dealer, Doug Ford said, to a media scrum, “Am I supposed to be intimidated by the police chief? The police chief doesn’t intimidate me.”

In the team of Tweedleford and Tweedleforder, Doug is supposed to be the voice of reason. To fully comprehend the throes of this meltdown, hear the above and below quotes in Pacino’s Scarface voice.

FordBird 131105

October 25, 2013

World War Cthulhu

The title says it all: Cubicle 7’s newly released fiction anthology World War Cthulhu combines tentacled cosmic horror with the 20th century’s darkest era. Edited by Jonathan Oliver, it includes such darkling luminaries as Greg Stolze, Sarah Newton, and World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar.

My story, “The Egyptian”, reveals the wartime career of infantry sergeant Tyler Freeborn, formerly of Miskatonic University, and his uneasy bond with the title character, an on-again, off-again soldier who fights with terrible ferocity. If  your only concern is to get your unit through the war, and Nyarlathotep reports for duty, do you turn him down?

Grab it as an ebook download from the Cubicle 7 web store.

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Watch Out, Boys, He Has the Power of Transcendentalism

In the latest episode of our golden, leafy podcast, Ken and I talk Lovecraft's Vermont, new nerd TV, RPG music and Emerson's Transcendentalism.

September 27, 2013

September 19, 2013

DramaSystem SRD Now Available

As a result of the Hillfolk Kickstarter, Pelgrane Press and I proudly make the DramaSystem rules engine available under two open licenses; the Open Gaming License and the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License. If you backed the campaign, take a moment to congratulate yourself for making this possible.

Download the CC version here.

Download the OGL version here.

The Birds: Tweet That

Tweet That
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September 18, 2013

2013 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Reviews

As promised, for your cutting and saving needs, my consolidated (and, in a few cases, slightly reconsidered) capsule reviews from the just-passed 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

Events cut my movie count to only 37 this time, so drawing conclusions from my slate of choices is even more of a mug’s game than usual. As expected it was a great year for genre, with two of my top three and many more of my recommended titles bringing an arty take to nerdospheric tropes. Maybe it means something that I saw only two duds, and nothing in between dud and okay. But probably not.

Titles appear in rough order of preference, but often with little to separate the first entry in a category from the last. That’s what categories are all about, people.

The Best

Under the Skin [UK, Jonathan Glazer] Alien invader in seductive human disguise  (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland harvesting victims. Mind-blowing images and music weave a freaky sci-fi tone poem.

Only Lovers Left Alive [US, Jim Jarmusch] Married vampires Adam and Eve (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston) reunite after a long time apart in his guitar-festooned Detroit hideout. Funny, magical meditation on the power of culture in a world of decay. With Mia Wiaskowska as the trouble-bringing baby sister vampire and William Hurt as Christopher Marlowe.

We Are the Best! [Sweden, Lukas Moodyson] Trio of teen girl outsiders starts a punk band. Richly observant tribute to the twin powers of rock and girlhood without a false note—except for the ones the band makes.

Recommended

Intruders [South Korea, Noh Young-seok] Screenwriter's attempts to work in isolation at a closed B&B are thwarted first by comic impositions, then a more sinister turn of events. Adroitly shifts tones and genres not once, which is hard enough, but twice.

R100 [Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto] Matters go from kinky to sinister to surreal when a sad single dad enlists an S&M service to add dominatrix attacks to his everyday life. Starts as a mix of offbeat comedy and family drama, only to reveal successive new levels of batshit insanity.

Soul [Taiwan, Chung Mong-Hong] When his son murders his daughter, an elderly orchid farmer, believing he has a csae of ghost possession on his hands, goes to extremes to cover it up. Visually stunning, occasionally funny or violent, cryptic Zen koan of a film.

Bastards [France, Claire Denis] Returned sailor's investigation of the financier who horrifically abused his niece includes an affair with the mother of the man's child. Haunting Get Carter variation from France's greatest working director.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears [Belgium, Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani] No matter how many times he gets horribly murdered, a man who thinks his wife has disappeared plumbs the secrets of his bizarre art nouveau apartment building. Gorgeous, crazed tribute to 70s Italian horror tantalizes with the possibility that it will resolve into a comprehensible narrative. It's giallo as Jorge Luis Borges would have written it.

Club Sandwich [Mexico, Fernando Eimbcke] Off-season hotel vacation for  hot mom and the 16-year-old son she treats a bit like a husband turns uncomfortable when he meets a girl his own age. Minimalist comedy of emotional boundary adjustment.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker [Bosnia-Herzegovina, Danis Tanovic] Roma scrap metal salvager runs out of options when the hospital demands payment he can't afford before performing life-saving post-miscarriage surgery for his wife. Rarely has the matter-of-fact slice-of-life style been deployed to such gut-wrenching effect.

I Am Yours [Norway, Iram Haq]  Aspiring actress (Amrita Acharia) pursues her yearning for sexual connection despite her duties as a joint-custodial parent and the condemnation of her Pakistani immigrant family. Raw-nerved  drama, driven by a bravura performance, shows how much harder we find it to watch a female protagonist compelled to make self-destructive decisions.

Bad Hair [Venezuela, Marina Rondón] Hard-pressed projects dweller pushes back against her willful prepubescent son's incipient gayness, as exemplified by his yen for straightened hair. Keenly observed drama of family love and resentment in an unforgiving environment.

The Amazing Catfish [Mexico, Claudia Sainte-Luce] Isolated young woman befriends a dying woman and her fractious brood of kids. Drama told with a an honesty and simplicity that keeps it well clear of tearjerker territory.

Cannibal [Spain, Manuel Martín Cuenca] Quiet serial killer develops confusing feelings for the sister of his latest victim, who meets him while investigating her disappearance. Calmly gripping thriller turns the introvert-comes-out-of-shell movie on its head, by making it about a protagonist who kills and eats women.

Heart of a Lion [Finland, Dome Karukoski] Neo-Nazi reconsiders his ways as he struggles to connect with his new girlfriend's biracial son. Deftly portrayed drama of redemption.

Quai d’Orsay [France, Bertrand Tavernier] Bright-eyed new speechwriter to a pompous, highlighter-loving Foreign Minister learns the governmental ropes as he preps him for a UN address. Hilarious Gallic counterpart to In the Loop, but with less swearing and more emphasis on clothes.

Friends from France [France, Anne Weil & Philippe Kotlarski] Cousins pretending to be on an engagement trip to Brezhnev-era Russia make covert contact with a famous refusenik. Makes late Soviet drabness photographically compelling as it intertwines political idealism and personal betrayal.

Unbeatable [HK, Dante Lam] Disgraced former boxing champion forms an unlikely surrogate family and trains a determined young underdog for an MMA tournament. Brings charm, color, humor and nail-biting ring action to the classic beats of the fight melodrama.

Witching & Bitching [Spain, Alex de Iglesia] Jewelry store robbers with kid in tow take wrong turn into mountain village run by cannibal witch cult. Horror-comedy-action romps its cartoony way through the battle of the sexes.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? [Japan, Sion Sono] Yakuza boss in a war with another clan wants his bad-ass daughter to be the lead in a finished movie in ten days, when his even more formidable wife gets out of prison. Gonzo cult comedy skewers unhinged film ambition as it builds to a jaw-dropping final act of slapstick hyper-violence.

Cold Eyes [South Korea, Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byung-seo] Police surveillance team plays cat-and-mouse with a criminal mastermind who works from a distance. Reconfigures the hot Hong Kong action of 2007’s Eye in the Sky into chilly Seoul paranoia.

Bastardo [Tunisia, Nejib Belkadhi] Meek resident of walled, gang-run neighborhood upends its balance of power by allowing the installation of a cell phone tower on his roof. Pointed allegory with touches of magical realism.

All About the Feathers [Costa Rica, Neto Villalobos] Oddball security guard's newly purchased gamecock spurs the friendship of a motley group. Deadpan Kaurismakian vignettes drive the sweetest cockfighting flick ever.

Horns [US, Alexandre Aja] DJ wrongly accused of murder (Daniel Radcliffe) grows a set of horns granting him the power to provoke unseemly confessions. Energetically tackles the fantasy elements of the Joe Hill source novel, even if, like any film adapted from a murder mystery, it struggles to maintain momentum within a flashback-heavy structure.

The Double [UK, Richard Ayoade] Milquetoast office drone (Jesse Eisenberg) befriends new co-worker, a confident, charismatic dead ringer for himself. Deadpan comedy of dissociation deeply steeped in Joe Versus the Volcano, Brazil, and the offbeat side of 80s indie cinema.

Good

Trap Street [China, Vivian Qu] Trainee digital surveyor who moonlights as an installer of surveillance cameras pursues a pretty girl who works on a street that doesn't show up on maps. Treats a Hitchcockian premise with naturalistic realism, observing the corrosiveness of life under omnipresent state observation.

American Dreams in China [HK, Peter Ho-Sun Chan] Three buddies embody the Chinese economic boom as they build an English language class that meets in a KFC into a business empire. Fast-moving celebration of ambition and friendship.

The Bit Player [Philippines, Jeffrey Jeturian] Longstanding soap opera extra with more perserverance than talent  navigates the highs and lows of a rough day on set. Amiable backstage comedy with just the right touch of pathos.

Blind Detective [HK, Johnnie To] Raffish blind P.I. (Andy Lau) teaches athletic policewoman (Sammi Cheng) the secrets of deduction. Broad buddy cop rom-com has of To working in the mode of his big domestic hits.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place [US, Simon & Zeke Hawkins] Handsome lunk in small-town Texas drags his college-bound girl and best friend into a gangland robbery. Debut directors make efficient use of shoestring resources and show their good taste in crime flick influences.

Of Good Report [South Africa, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka] High school teacher whose resume looks good on paper embarks on an affair with a student, to unhinged results. Histrionic crime film in scabrous B&W feels like its young director is smashing the prevailing aesthetic of African cinema in the face with a hammer bequeathed to him by Sam Fuller.

Okay

The Sacrament [US, Ti West] Events shift from unease to worse when a VICE crew visits expatriate religious compound in Central America. Redeploys the indestructible found footage technique to reimagine a real-life horror.

All Cheerleaders Die [US, Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson] A spell brings cheerleaders murdered by the football captain back from the dead, hungry for blood and vengeance. Hybrid zombie-vampire flick with satirical overtones makes hay with high school sexual politics.

Standing Aside, Watching [Greece, Yorgos Servetas] Tough-minded woman newly moved back to her crappy hometown learns that her childhood friend and young new guy are both on thrall to the local psycho. Smalltown noir informed by the Greek economic meltdown delivers more slow burn than its ending can pay off.

This is Sanlitun [China, Robert I. Douglas] Clueless prat comes from England to Beijing to make his fortune and win back his ex-wife and son. Mockumentary of expat life in the new China owes its style to Ricky Gervais.

Duds

Ningen [Japan, Guillaume Giovanetti and Cagla Zencirci] The lives of a failed CEO, his ill wife and a strip club owner mirror a classic folk tale. Brief flashes of magic can't save an enervatingly padded storyline whose protagonist does not develop a propelling motivation until the end of act two.

Story of My Death [Spain, Albert Serra] Casanova idylls in a Swiss chateau, then a Carpathian village in the shadow of Dracula's castle. Languid mood piece could be made interesting, maybe even compelling, by any first year film editing student willing to cut the 60 minutes of superfluous material from its 2 1/2 hr running time.

September 16, 2013

TIFF Day Eleven (and Out): Sorceresses, Doppelgängers, Killers and, Worst, Politicians


I rarely give myself dispensation to use this word, but this year I am particularly glad that I was able to program strictly funner fare for the final Sunday.

Quai d’Orsay [France, Bertrand Tavernier, 4] Bright-eyed new speechwriter to a pompous, highlighter-loving Foreign Minister learns the governmental ropes as he preps him for a UN address. Hilarious Gallic counterpart to In the Loop, but with less swearing and more emphasis on clothes.

Witching & Bitching [Spain, Alex de Iglesia, 4] Jewelry store robbers with kid in tow take wrong turn into mountain village run by cannibal witch cult. Horror-comedy-action romps its cartoony way through the battle of the sexes.

This wins the award for best giant monster of the fest.

Cold Eyes [South Korea, Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byung-seo, 4] Police surveillance team plays cat-and-mouse with a criminal mastermind who works from a distance. Reconfigures the big Hong Kong action of Eye in the Sky into chilly Seoul paranoia.

This wins the award for best Easter Egg.

The Double [UK, Richard Ayoade, 4] Milquetoast office drone (Jesse Eisenberg) befriends new co-worker, a confident, charismatic dead ringer for himself. Deadpan comedy of dissociation deeply steeped in Joe Versus the Volcano, Brazil, and the offbeat side of 80s indie cinema.

All Cheerleaders Die [US, Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson, 3] A spell brings cheerleaders murdered by the football captain back from the dead, hungry for blood and vengeance. Hybrid zombie-vampire flick with satirical overtones makes hay with high school sexual politics.

And that's the fest for another year. A couple of days of collapsing and resurfacing now ensue, then back to the gaming mines. A review omnibus with all the films in my rough order of preference will come in a couple of days.

September 14, 2013

TIFF Day Ten: Punk May Not Be Dead, but a Bunch of These Yakuza Will Be



This is Sanlitun [China, Robert I. Douglas, 3] Clueless prat comes from England to Beijing to make his fortune and win back his ex-wife and son. Mockumentary of expat life in owes its style to Ricky Gervais.

We Are the Best! [Sweden, Lukas Moodyson, 4] Trio of teen girl outsiders starts a punk band. Richly observant tribute to the twin powers of rock and girlhood. 

It might just be that this was the movie I needed at this moment, but the above could well warrant a full upgrade to fave staus by the time of the final review round-up.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? [Japan, Sion Sono, 4] Yakuza boss in a war with another clan wants his bad-ass daughter to be the lead in a finished movie in ten days, when his even more formidable wife gets out of prison. Gonzo cult comedy skewers unhinged film ambition as it builds to a jaw-dropping final act of slapstick hyper-violence.

I Am Yours [Norway, Iram Haq, 4]  Aspiring actress (Amrita Acharia) pursues her yearning for sexual connection despite her duties as a joint-custodial parent and the condemnation of her Pakistani immigrant family. Raw-nerved  drama, driven by a bravura performance, shows how much harder we find it to watch a female protagonist compelled to make self-destructive decisions.

You may know Acharia from her role in "Game of Thrones."

R100 [Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 4] Matters go from kinky to sinister to surreal when a sad single dad enlists an S&M service to add dominatrix attacks to his everyday life. Starts as a mix of offbeat comedy and family drama, only to reveal successive new levels of batshit insanity.



September 13, 2013

Muriel Hickling (1925-2013)

Muriel CroppedMy wife's mother, Muriel Hickling, died on Tuesday, after taking ill on Sunday, her 88th birthday. She was rallying after six months in hospital and newly adapting to life in a nursing home, only to be taken by a C. difficile infection.

Those of you who have met me at summer conventions know Muriel second-hand, through the fabulous, colorful shirts she made for me nearly every Gen Con. Perhaps I invited you to ooh and aah at her painstaking matching of the pocket to the pattern on the shirt behind it. Though she never knew exactly what to make of my work, she was always pleased to hear about the many positive reviews her latest masterpiece elicited each year. From now on the new ones will all be store-bought.

Muriel served in the Canadian Women's Army Corps in WWII. She raised six children and for decades managed the household component of a working farm. Given the time pressures that entailed, her policy of never being wrong can only be seen as a key efficiency.

By the time I met her, she was a prodigious quilter and equally dedicated assembler of her huge clan's vast genealogy. She collected costume jewelry, rocks, glassware and perfume bottles. Muriel documented her life and those of her children with diary entries jotted on stray pieces of paper and then stored with a trove of artifacts. One Ziploc bag of treasures included her payment slip on discharge from the Army and the receipt from her wedding corsage.

Her passing leaves a considerable absence for Valerie and me, for her husband Harold, her other surviving children, their spouses, six adult grandchildren, and the aforementioned extended brood.

For the next little while, looking in my closet will mark a bittersweet moment.

September 12, 2013

TIFF Day Seven: Giallo Dreams and a Blind Detective


American Dreams in China [HK, Peter Ho-Sun Chan, 3.5] Three buddies embody the Chinese economic boom as they build an English language class that meets in a KFC into a business empire. Fast-moving celebration of ambition and friendship.

Bastards [France, Claire Denis, 4] Returned sailor's investigation of the financier who abused his niece includes an affair with the mother of the man's child. Haunting Get Carter variation from France's greatest working director.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears [Belgium, Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani, 4] No matter how many times he gets horribly murdered, a man who thinks his wife has disappeared plumbs the secrets of his bizarre art nouveau apartment building. Gorgeous, crazed tribute to 70s Italian horror tantalizes with the possibility that it will resolve into a comprehensible narrative. It's giallo as Jorge Luis Borges would have written it.

Blind Detective [HK, Johnnie To, 3.5] Raffish blind P.I. (Andy Lau) teaches athletic policewoman (Sammi Cheng) the secrets of deduction. Broad buddy cop rom-com reunites the stars of To's big domestic hits.

September 11, 2013

TIFF Day Six: Cult Cinema About a Cult


After serving up five days of evenly autumnal temperatures, the weather elementals have decided to show off their capriciousness with a blast of summer Humidex. The intrepid fest-goer dares not dress for summer, with the venues themselves cranking the A/C. However I lucked out and managed to score all indoor lines today.

Friends from France [France, Anne Weil & Philippe Kotlarski, 4] Cousins pretending to be on an engagement trip to Brezhnev-era Russia make covert contact with a famous refusenik. Makes late Soviet drabness photographically compelling as it intertwines political idealism and personal betrayal.

Not to be indelicate, but an epilogue always seems an especially trying structural device when you desperately need to bolt for the loo.

The Bit Player [Philippines, Jeffrey Jeturian, 3.5] Longstanding soap opera extra with more perserverance than talent  navigates the highs and lows of a rough day on set. Amiable backstage comedy with just the right touch of pathos.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s the fest used to program great, weird subversive melodramas made for the local Filipino commercial market, often with a hidden Sirkian twist. Lately I've had the country on a moratorium as new programmers have focused on dreary, slow fare made for FIPRESCI jurors. This is a refreshing sign of hope that interesting local cinema might start showing up again.

Ningen [Japan, Guillaume Giovanetti and Cagla Zencirci, 1] The lives of a failed CEO, his ill wife and a strip club owner mirror a classic folk tale. Brief flashes of magic can't save an enervatingly padded storyline whose protagonist does not develop an activating motivation until the end of act two.

I'm starting to fear that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which I quite like) is having the same influence over Asian art cinema that Reservoir Dogs had on American indie film in the 90s. In each case filmmakers can look at a breakthrough movie and think that it's something they can emulate with the resources they can muster. But in neither instance do we need to see thirty versions of that.

The Sacrament [US, Ti West, 3.5] Events shift from unease to worse when a VICE crew visits expatriate religious compound in Central America. Redeploys the indestructible found footage technique to reimagine a real-life horror.

Still not sure of my rating on this one. It was well done but I'm trying to work out if it was worth doing.

Today we received some very sad family news, the kind that cuts short a vacation. We'll continue at the fest tomorrow but will miss Thurs and Fri and possibly more.

September 10, 2013

TIFF Day Five: Scarlett Johannson is an Alien Succubus


Bad Hair [Venezuela, Marina Rondón, 4] Hard-pressed favela dweller pushes back against her willful prepubescent son's incipient gayness, as exemplified by his yen for straightened hair. Keenly observed drama of family love and resentment in an unforgiving environment.

The Amazing Catfish [Mexico, Claudia Sainte-Luce, 4] Isolated young woman befriends a dying woman and her fractious brood of kids. Drama told with a an honesty and simplicity that keeps it well clear of tearjerker territory.

A rare example of a film in which a kid is given a goldfish that does not at some point come to grief. (I assure you that this is in no way a spoiler.)

Club Sandwich [Mexico, Fernando Eimbcke, 4] Off-season hotel vacation for  hot mom and the 16-year-old son she treats a bit like a husband turns uncomfortable when he meets a girl his own age. Minimalist comedy of emotional boundary adjustment.

The above brings to 2 the number of films so far to use The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" Though this one is a downtempo cover in Spanish.

Soul [Taiwan, Chung Mong-Hong, 4] When his son murders his daughter, an elderly orchid farmer, believing he has a csae of ghost possession on his hands, goes to extremes to cover it up. Visually stunning, occasionally funny or violent, cryptic Zen koan of a film.

The above rating us extremely provisional. It might drop or maybe even go higher depending on how it sticks with me over the next week. Right afterwards the guy next to me at the urinal had to tell me that it was first movie you've seen the festival so far. That made me like it more.

Under the Skin [UK, Jonathan Glazer, 5] Alien invader in seductive human disguise  (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland harvesting victims. Mind-blowing images and music weave a freaky sci-fi tone poem.

It is a tribute to the power of TIFF that they could fill a huge venue and whip up an incredible sense of excitement for this crazy art movie.The promised brief glimpse of its star helped that enormously, of course.

If you want the glib version when describing it to your friends as you try to get them to go with you to see if you could say, "what if Species have been a Stanley Kubrick project?"

September 09, 2013

TIFF Day Four: Horny Radcliffe, Rural Heist, Magical Allegory & Chinese Map Dread


Horns [US, Alexandre Aja, 4] DJ wrongly accused of murder (Daniel Radcliffe) grows a set of horns granting him the power to provoke unseemly confessions. Energetically tackles the fantasy elements of the Joe Hill source novel, even if, like any film adapted from a murder mystery, it struggles to maintain momentum within a flashback-heavy structure.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place [US, Simon & Zeke Hawkins, 3.5] Handsome lunk in small-town Texas drags his college-bound girl and best friend into a gangland robbery. Debut directors make efficient use of shoestring resources and show their good taste in crime flick influences.

Bastardo [Tunisia, Nejib Belkadhi, 4] Meek resident of walled, gang-run neighborhood upends its balance of power by allowing the installation of a cell phone tower on his roof. Pointed allegory with touches of magical realism.

Trap Street [China, Vivian Qu, 3.5] Trainee digital surveyor who moonlights as an installer of surveillance cameras pursues a pretty girl who works on a street that doesn't show up on maps. Treats a Hitchcockian premise with naturalistic realism, observing the corrosiveness of life under omnipresent state observation.

September 08, 2013

TIFF Day Three: Lovely Vampires and Scary People

 
Heavy rain, which always burdens the all-out festival-goer with an additional layer of logistical friction. If friction comes in a damp variety. Yet perhaps fitting for a day of menace and murder.

Only Lovers Left Alive [US, Jim Jarmusch, 5] Married vampires Adam and Eve (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston) reunite after a long time apart in his guitar-festooned Detroit hideout. Funny, magical meditation on the power of culture in a world of decay. With Mia Wiaskowska as the trouble-bringing baby sister vampire and William Hurt as Christopher Marlowe.

Jarmusch, Hiddleston and Anton Yelchin, who hilariously plays a music industry Renfield, appeared at the screening.

Although I default to films that aren't guaranteed a theatrical release, this is coming out thru Sony Classics (and this Mongrel Media here in Canada.) I picked this as the most promising choice in its slot and am glad I did, as I now have one five-star item in pocket.

Cannibal [Spain, Manuel Martín Cuenca, 4] Quiet serial killer develops confusing feelings for the sister of his latest victim, who meets him while investigating her disappearance. Calmly gripping thriller turns the introvert-comes-out-of-shell movie on its head, by making it about a protagonist who kills and eats women.
In past years two multiplexes gave half of their screens to the fest. This time thiose screenings have been assigned to a single house, which is straining to accommodate the traffic flow.

Of Good Report [South Africa, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, 3.5] High school teacher whose resume looks good on paper embarks on an affair with a student, to unhinged results. Histrionic crime film in scabrous B&W feels like its young director is smashing the prevailing aesthetic of African cinema in the face with a hammer bequeathed to him by Sam Fuller.

Intruders [South Korea, Noh Young-seok,   4] Screenwriter's attempts to work in isolation at a closed B&B are thwarted first by comic impositions, then a more sinister turn of events. Adroitly shifts tones and genres not once, which is hard enough, but twice.

So far the buzz for higher profile movies that might win Oscars seems to be going to 12 Years a Slave with Chiwetel Eijiofor. Last year Argo fizzled at TIFF, won the Academy Award, and is now retroactively counted as part of the fest's predictive winning streak.

September 07, 2013

TIFF Day Two: Skinheads, Greek Noir, Rooster Love & Dracula vs. Casanova


Story of My Death [Spain, Albert Serra, 1] Casanova idylls in a Swiss chateau, then a Carpathian village in the shadow of Dracula's castle. Languid mood piece could be made interesting, maybe even compelling, by any first year film editing student willing to cut the 60 minutes of superfluous material from its 2 1/2 hr running time.

Standing Aside, Watching [Greece, Yorgos Servetas, 3] Tough-minded woman newly moved back to her crappy hometown learns that her childhood friend and young new guy are both on thrall to the local psycho. Smalltown noir informed by the Greek economic meltdown delivers more slow burn than its ending can pay off.

Heart of a Lion [Finland, Dome Karukoski, 4] Neo-Nazi reconsiders his ways as he struggles to connect with his new girlfriend's biracial son. Deftly portrayed drama of redemption.

All About the Feathers [Costa Rica, Neto Villalobos, 4] Oddball security guard's newly purchased gamecock spurs the friendship of a motley group. Deadpan Kaurismakian vignettes drive the sweetest cockfighting flick ever.

Among the funding agencies given a title card at the top of the film: its 237 Indiegogo backers.

September 06, 2013

TIFF Day One: Bruising MMA, Wrenching Slice-of-Life



The gamerific exhaustions of convention season have at least slightly ebbed, and for this humble correspondent that can mean only one thing—the cinematic exhaustions of another full-bore assault on the Toronto International Film Festival. For this, my 27th foray, TIFF programmers have served up an especially promising year of Asian cinema. Hong Kong arrives with its biggest slate in years. And across the world, genre continues its inroads into the precincts of world cinema. So this year’s slate takes the familiar feeling that I’m only scratching the surface of what’s available and cranks it up even further. Documentaries? Couldn’t fit ‘em in. Cinema of the developing world? Didn’t make the cut. I console myself with the thought that anything great will come around again, but that isn’t always the case.

Logistically, the change this year comes with a compression of venues.  Now that one chain owns both of the big downtown multiplexes, which used to each be half given over to the festival each year, all those screenings have been moved to a single house, the Scotiabank. This will make it easier to move between screenings, freeing up time to eat that otherwise would have been spent on the subway loop between Dundas and Osgoode stations. How the heck they’ll manage the line-ups in the Scotiabank remains to be seen.

Here’s the standard drill, if you’ve forgotten how it works around the Cinema Hut at TIFF time or are joining the festivities for the first time:

I’ll be writing capsule reviews of everything I see, and then gathering them up in order of preference in the festival’s aftermath. Until then, I’ll be giving provisional ratings to the films, which are bound to change as they settle into memory. Ratings range from 0 to 5, with 0 arousing my active ire and 5 ascending to rarefied heights of masterpiece-dom.

Interspersed between the capsules will be expansions on the reviews, stray observations, and whatever logistical complaining I fail to suppress.

If you’ve heard of a release that’s playing TIFF, chances are that it’s because the film will be coming out shortly and is getting a big PR push. I tend to skip films that have distribution in place in favor of those I might never get another shot at. So I’m not the one to ask about the Oscar-bait movies with the big stars in attendance.

Do you want to see these movies right away? Well, these titles are beginning their long journey through the distribution chain. Many will continue to appear on the film festival circuit over the next year or so. The high profile releases I tend not to schedule at the fest may appear in theaters as early as next week. Indies and foreign titles will score theatrical releases over the next year or so, and streaming/DVD releases after that. Some may appear only on home video/streaming, or vanish completely.

While a few of last year’s films still await theatrical release, most have made it through the chain. So if you want to enjoy some fine cinema right away, track down my top picks from last year’s extravaganza.

And now, let's start the capsule reviews rolling, with the two films I caught on opening night:

Unbeatable [HK, Dante Lam, 4] Disgraced former boxing champion forms an unlikely surrogate family and trains a determined young underdog for an MMA tournament. Brings charm, color, humor and nail-biting ring action to the classic beats of the fight melodrama.


An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker [Bosnia-Herzegovina, Danis Tanovic, 4] Roma scrap metal salvager runs out of options when the hospital demands payment he can't afford before performing life-saving post-miscarriage surgery for his wife. Rarely has the matter-of-fact slice-of-life style been deployed to such gut-wrenching effect.

August 20, 2013

Catching Me at FanExpo Canada 2013

FanExpo Canada rolls out this weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. Its gaming track, thanks to the impossible oddsmanship of coordinator Justin Mohareb, has evolved in a thriving and genuine entity. It’s the week after Gen Con, so I always try to wriggle out of it, only to be drawn back in. This time Justin’s entreaty I could not refuse included his bringing my boon compadre and podcaster-in-crime Kenneth Hite up to join the extravaganza of gaming and genre palaver. So to heck with Nathan Fillion, Zachary Quinto and Stan Lee. Come to see us—along with Chris Perkins, Ed Greenwood, and many more.

I’m not doing the vendor table thing, but you can catch up with me at the following seminar events. I’m more than happy to sign books or chat after events. Don’t be shy about getting my attention in the vast scrum that is FanExpo. I’ll be the one in the groovy shirt.

Date

Time

Event

Room

Sat

3:45 pm

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff – Live!

705

Sat

6:00 pm

GM MasterClass (with Ed Greenwood, Kenneth Hite, Chris Perkins, Matthew McFarland)

701B

Sun

11:15 am

Writing Adventure Games (with Ed Greenwood, Kenneth Hite & Jonathan Lavallee)

703

Sun

12:30 pm

Advanced Kickstarting (with Jason Anarchy)

713

Sun

3:15 pm

Robin Laws Q&A

703





August 19, 2013

Gen Con 2013 Gloating and Thanks

Another Gen Con now recedes into the Mountain Dew-scented mists of time. Now in an O’Hare waiting lounge, a familiar mix of euphoria and sleep deprivation dulls my cognition.

The Pelgrane Press decisively smashed previous sales records. I’ll let Simon provide the percentage figures, should his argent reserve permit. Most pertinent to my agenda, Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow posted very satisfying numbers. The companion volume did surprisingly strongly. You expect supplements to sell a fraction of the core book. Here that fraction was much bigger than the norm. Even better, sales picked up on the Sunday, suggesting that people who’d earlier on picked up the core back came back later for the companion.

13th Age and Eternal Lies were no slouches either. Double Tapped, the new goodies book for Night’s Black Agents, sold out, and the core game, buoyed by Ken’s double silver ENnie triumph, all but did so as well.

Gen Con offers a chance to spend time with a large swath of my favorite people, and I cram moments of catching up into my schedule as greedily as I used to trawl the halls for signs of the new hotness. A record number of past and present members of my game group made themselves present, including illustrator Rachel Kahn and illustrator/graphic designer Chris Huth, both immersed in the giant festival of gaming love for the first time. I loved seeing the experience through their bedazzled first-timer eyes.

A couple of big future projects solidified at the show and I look forward to spilling the beans on them in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by with kind words for my work, including a certain much-lauded podcast. This tight shot of ego gratification now goes into emotional storage to be fed upon until, oh, say, Dragonmeet.

Thanks to the Hillfolk contributors who took part in our two mass signings, in all their chaotic, ink-stained glory.

And thanks to Hillfolk backers who picked up their copies at the show. As you may have heard, shipping costs have spiked horrifyingly since our campaign in the fall, so by grabbing your books in Indy you helped the project yet again.

Now time to rest…oh, wait. Tomorrow is programming day for the Toronto International Film Festival. And then Ken arrives on my doorstep Friday so we can descend as a dynamic dyad on FanExpo Canada.

I might catch some rest in October, I guess…

August 17, 2013

Gen Con Day Two: Read to the Bottom for the Giant Dangling Hint

If you ever get a chance to attend a Q&A-format panel moderated by Jack Graham of Posthuman Studios, take it. He works the room like a nerdgeist standup comic, softening up questioners by asking them where they’re from and then hitting them with a leftfield question. Do Oklahomans add more tornado threats to their games? Would you sooner be Mork or Mindy? The gauntlet thus having been run, he hands the foam Talking Axe to the participant, who then throws his query to the panel.

Here it was a question for the Campaign Doctors on how to address particular ongoing problems in one’s game. As they often do at Gen Con, the basic “what do I do about this one guy in my group” query took on unusual permutations—how not to stump players when you distribute narrative control, or how to run for an outwardly detached 14 year old. Amanda Valentine provided sage advice, seizing high ground as the voice of reason. Luke Crane served up delightful iconoclasm, particularly when hilariously informing one group of Burning Wheelers that they were playing his game wrong. Comically heightened apoplexy abounded. And of course I said the Things I Always Say.

Speaking of which, the later GUMSHOE panel with Kenneth Hite, Simon Rogers and your quasi-humble correspondent started with the basics and zoomed out to masterclass detail in the second half. As far as I can tell I succeeded in recording it, and we’ll be mining the choicer bits as a recycled audio segment on an upcoming instalment of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.

Then I got to do the Bob Hope thing, showing up to deliver a cameo appearance in Jeff Tidball’s intensive RPG design workshop. If you are thinking of jumping into the field and see him doing this at a future show, block out that chunk of time and get ready for an invaluable crash course. I dropped some choice design science, told a few jokes, and swanned out again. Next time I’ll have to have “Thanks for the Memories” loaded on my smartphone as I stroll in.

Last night saw Ken once more dipped in silver glory as he clutched two such medals, honoring Night’s Black Agents for Best Writing and Best Game. He has become so accustomed to such feting that the later uptick in his overweeningness was barely perceptible.

Or perhaps John Kovalic, back at Gen Con for the first time in nine years to promote his fab new party game ROFL, noticed it more acutely than the rest of us.

Oh, and somewhere in there I had a very fruitful meeting concerning the Battlechimp Potemkin. Make of that what you will.

August 16, 2013

Gen Con Day One: The Best Kind of Dwindling

Yesterday at the Pelgrane booth, fat stacks of Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow dwindled satisfyingly throughout the day. Once refreshed, they dwindled again. We had both sales and plenty of Kickstarter backer pickups. The day also dished up a lesson in the nonmonetary rewards of Kickstarter. I could see how much awareness the campaign had created for DramaSystem in that I had to do very little cold pitching of the basic concept; because people swung by already knew what it was. In fact I was able to talk to people who have already played it, because the backers have had a fully functioning copy of the rules since October. So the project gives off the glow of newness while also being something that people know enough about to get excited.

Thanks to all the contributors who took part in the Hillfolk signing event. I look forward to the next one with a fresh crop of signers at 11 AM on Sunday.

This is not to imply that the other many new cool things at the Pelgrane booth were not also briskly dwindling their own stacks away. It is particularly fun, as Ken pointed out, to hand someone a copy of Eternal Lies and watch the recipient’s arm abruptly drop with its unexpected heft.

I already have what my wife very sweetly refers to as my sexy convention voice, which is to say that the vocal apparatus is already showing the strain. You know what that means-- it's seminar day!

At 1 pm, it’s the Campaign Doctors Panel with Jack Graham, Luke Crane & Amanda Valentine at the Crowne Plaza Ballroom A/B, thrown by the good singularitans at Posthuman Studios.

Then at 3, it’s that perennial fave, the GUMSHOE and Investigative Roleplaying Panel with Kenneth Hite and Simon Rogers, also in the Crowne Plaza Ballroom A/B. We will attempt to capture audio for later recycling on the podcast.

Most of the rest of the day I will endeavour to be at the Pelgrane booth. That’s booth 101, free ice cream for the kiddies (ice cream and cones not included.)

August 15, 2013

Time to Hit That Gen Con Floor

It was a delight to behold the obvious joy that Diana Jones award winner Wil Wheaton exuded as he accepted his mysterious Perspex pyramid for Tabletop. In his speech, after lofting the trophy above his head in happy triumph, he talked about gaming as the refuge that got him through his early, lonely awkward stage. In other words, he told the same gaming origin story many of the thousands of people gathered here at Gen Con this weekend could easily echo.

It may be the unexpectedly moderate weather, it may be that I have some new posse members to introduce to their colleagues, but whatever it was I can’t say I’ve enjoyed a Diana Jones party more. The sense of reunion that comes from seeing the gang together in one place washes away months of self-imposed stress and nonsense.

But that was last night and at least one shot of tequila ago. Now I steel myself for the glories of the exhibit hall. I have been told that Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow have in fact manifested in physical form but have yet to run my paternal fingers across their hardcover surfaces. After a year heavily dominated by the process of making these, I could not be more stoked to finally see them reaching you, the gaming  public. If you’re a backer picking up the show I will feel an extra frisson of satisfaction to see them move from the booth table to your capacious bags o’ loot. I will be haunting the Pelgrane booth (101) pretty much through the day today.We have one of our two mega signings this afternoon at 3 PM so if you can swing by for that we have Sharpies ready and waiting to personalize those pages.

Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow are but a fraction of the bounty that you can grab at the Pelgrane booth. The Esoterrorists second edition is here. 13th Age is here. Eternal Lies is here, which I didn't even know to expect! And I have it on good authority that there might be other game products at other booths.

Now if you'll excuse me I have a date with some piles of books…

August 13, 2013

Another One for the Portrait Gallery

In my continuing bid to become the Kiki de Montparnasse of the hobby gaming world, I have once again been immortalized through the pen of a top illustrator.  First Gene Ha, then John Kovalic, and now Jonathan Wyke, who contributed many fine pieces to Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow. I’ll be adding it to my roster of drop icons. Thanks, Jonathan!

August 09, 2013

Finding Me at Gen Con 2013

Once again it’s the time of year when hobby game designers start posts by telling you it’s that time of year. Gen Con is right around the corner, luring us in with the scent of fresh polyhedrals and keeping us there with the glow of community and creative renewal.

My big focus this year, barring catastrophic tinkering by the print gods, will be on the arrival of Hillfolk and its companion, Blood in the Snow. I had this largely designed by Gen Con 11, was plotting initial Kickstarter moves at Gen Con 12, and now look forward to see it finally realized as a physical object. Backers have been playing the game for a while, based first on their preview editions and then with the finished PDF. But there’s nothing like a tangible item to infuse one with a sense of completion. Swing by the Pelgrane Press booth to pick it up, at its new upsized digs: #101, across from the Paizo booth.

Also at the show, the GUMSHOE game that started it all, bigger and more unremitting than before—The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition! I am stoked to see that hit the trade table, too.

When not otherwise booked I’ll mostly be haunting the Pelgrane booth. I’m there to chat, so don’t be shy. I’m happy to sign any of my books for you, not just Pelgrane stuff.

To catch me in a more structured circumstance, join me for any of the following events:

Thurs

3-4 pm

Hillfolk Signing #1, with Jennifer Brozek, Paula Dempsey, Steve Dempsey, Dave Gross, Rob Heinsoo, Ryan Macklin, Michelle Nephew, Jeff Richard, Rob Wieland & illustrator Rachel A. Kahn

Pelgrane booth

Fri

1-2 pm

Campaign Doctors Panel with Jack Graham, Luke Crane & Amanda Valentine. (Posthuman Studios)

Crowne Plaza Ballroom A/B

Fri

3-4 pm

GUMSHOE and Investigative Roleplaying Panel with Kenneth Hite & Simon Rogers. (Pelgrane Press)

Crowne Plaza Ballroom A/B

Sat

Noon-1 pm

Table to Page: Narrative Gaming Panel with Corey Reid, Gareth Skarka, Emily Care Boss & Kirin Robinson (Scratch Factory)

Crowne Plaza Victoria Station, C / D.

 

Sun

11 am-Noon

Hillfolk Signing #2, with Keith Baker, Emily Care Boss, Steven S. Long, TS Luikart, Andy Peregrine, Wade Rockett & Pedro Ziviani,

Pelgrane Booth

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: A Tank Wearing a Truck Hat

In the latest episode of our electrifying podcast, Ken and I talk period Night's Black Agents, Jasper Maskelyne, Kickstarter doom and Nikolai Tesla.

August 08, 2013

Advertise on Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff

“Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff”, the Golden Geek-winning, five-star podcast I co-host with my boon colleague Kenneth Hite, is now opening up a few more advertising slots. This is your chance to join the fun and erudition, in the fine company of present sponsors Pelgrane  Press, Profantasy Software, and Dork Tower.

If you’d like to advertise your game, company or other product or service to an eager audience of discerning listeners, download our rate sheet, with contact info, in handy PDF format.