This Bureau Needs Adjusting! A Review

I didn’t seek out the Adjustment Bureau, even though it was a movie based on a story by Philip K. Dick, and his stories almost always have something valuable in them. No, I didn’t seek it out, but it was the compromise choice for a movie on Netflix, and so I watched it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s good. This is almost completely due to the cast and – one assumes – the director who got such fine performances out of them. The script was fine, but not particularly memorable. Much of the script that worked best would have worked in a romantic comedy as well. But this wasn’t a romantic comedy. It’s a fantasy movie – not science fiction as Wikipedia states. There’s no science in it. The antagonists are pretty much . . .

Spoilers? Is that necessary? Spoilers . . .

Angels. This is a movie about magic and how true love can conquer even the most powerful of magics. The Adjustment Bureau of the title has decided to adjust the pair’s romance since it has no place in “the plan,” but somehow they keep getting back together. Perhaps this is through sheer chance or will, but it shows that their love is greater than “the plan” and all the powers that support it. But that isn’t actually the story because – I’ve already warned you, but SPOILERS! – they were actually supposed to be together in a previous plan and only recently was that changed. So really, their love isn’t theirs, it’s from “the plan.” And while Damon’s character argues for free will, his love actually isn’t a product of his free will, but rather a leftover of “the plan.”

This isn’t remarked on in the movie, nor is the fact that if the plan changes, then the planner – known as “the Chairman” – isn’t infallible. To me, this seemed like a kind of a big deal when the Bureau does not question “the plan” because it is supposed to be perfect. One of the agents is shocked to learn that “the plan” changed in the past, but doesn’t seem to follow that on to its logical conclusion – if the plan regularly changes (there’s another change in “the plan” during the movie) they are following whims, rather than a plan.

Nothing is really well-explained and problems are papered-over maybe with hopes that no one will notice. The movie works because of its cast – not just Damon and Blunt but also Anthony Mackie as the agent who becomes their ally and Terence Stamp as the toughest of the tough. It’s a fun watch, but for a movie that seems to think it’s quite smart, that’s a façade. It veers very far away from Philip K. Dick’s original story, and that loses both the science fiction of the premise and the intelligence of the same.

I give the Adjustment Bureau 3.75 magic hats out of 5. The performances are great and the cast is charismatic, but the story doesn’t really hold together. Sure, there’s inspiration with some of the ideas here, but it’s definitely not science fiction and really only fantasy as a strawman – a powerful adversary that isn’t really powerful at all in order to show the strength of true love, which isn’t actually true love.

You can find out more about the Adjustment Bureau at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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The Defenders: The Verdict

I had plenty of momentum when I wrote my review of the first episodes of the Defenders. Finishing the series, that motivation and momentum died a barely noticed death. It’s not that the series was bad, but it had a very high bar to clear, and Iron Fist was pulling at its legs the whole time, tripping it up badly.

The joy at seeing these characters and catching up with them cannot drive one through all eight episodes, and as this is as much a continuation of the Iron Fist story as Daredevil Season 2, the weakness of that former series weighs heavily on this one. This is very idiosyncratic, as I love the character of Iron Fist as depicted in comics, and as each episode went by, I saw very little improvement. There was some improvement over his portrayal in his own series, but I’ve mentioned those already. After some brief promise, my hopes were dashed.

And while I think there was some real promise with the villains – and at least Sigourney Weaver delivers when she is on screen – there is a lot of wasted promise. Murakami looked interesting, but he just ended up being ninja-contrarian. The one that seemed the most promising to me was Sowande, who seemed to suggest (during his captivity) that face punching wasn’t his only talent. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the series, you know how that promise was answered in the series.

Great at protecting my coffee. Not so as a TV character.

So the villains don’t have the level of threat or fascination that we got from the Kingpin, Kilgrave, or Cottonmouth. We really get slightly better variations of Bakuto, who wasn’t a very strong character. The criminal underuse of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight continued, though there were some hints at future greatness for at least one of them.

In the end, this isn’t the worst of the Marvel-Netflix productions, and with word that Disney will be removing itself from Netflix, I can’t imagine we have too many more of these to go. What that says to me is that we won’t be seeing anymore of Iron Fist. I never thought I’d ever say this, but . . .

Good.

I give the Defenders 3.5 kind of weak fingers on an uninspired Hand out of 5. There were moments of interest and some good action scenes, but the charisma and character touches couldn’t save the series from a mediocre story and its weaker links.

You can find out more about the Defenders at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can find my review of the first five episodes here.

Please support my Patreon.

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Getting All Patreon-izing

I haven’t posted as much here as I should, and there are two reasons for that. One is that I haven’t been enjoying a lot of media – not watching anything or reading anything right now. Second is that instead of consuming media, I’ve been prepping for my Patreon.

Patreon is a crowd-funding platform based on the old patron-client relationship, like how a noble would maintain a bard on the payroll, or the rich Italian merchant houses made sure people like Michangelo were well-paid for their creations. In the case of Patreon, it’s kind of like a crowd-funding subscription service. Each month, there’ll be a release and for each release, subscribers will have pledged a certain amount. The base amount is $1, but there are higher tiers which have access to more or different products, and have a say in what will be produced.

Right now, I have adventures for some of my games. In September, I’ll release “Lawless Heaven,” an adventure for Sword’s Edge based on Korean action cinema. In October, it’ll be “Face ‘Splosion,” a Sword’s Edge adventure sci-fi actioner that’s an homage to the Borderlands video games. In November, it’ll be “Judged,” an adventure for Nefertiti Overdrive that bridges the adventure in the Quickstart Rules and in the main book. These are all ready to go. They’ve been written, laid out, and the PDFs are sitting on the hard drive waiting for me to pull the trigger.

The plan for December is a campaign framework, but that is in revision. I’m not sure how many pages it will end up being, so it might come as two different releases. After that? We’ll see. I also intend to release unpublished fiction and possibly a serialized novel through Patreon. It all depends on what the reaction is. Since higher tier subscribers have a say on what projects should enter the queue, it might end up all adventures, or short PRGs, or fiction. Hard to say.

Once I have a buffer of about six products (halfway there!) I’ll feel more comfortable putting time in elsewhere, until that, you can check out some of the RPG articles at SEP and maybe start saving your money for the Patreon.

I hear it’ll be kind of cool.

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The Defenders – the First Five Episodes

I’m up to episode five with the Defenders, and I’m enjoying it so far, except for Iron Fist. But let’s leave that until later. Let’s heap some praise on this before I unleash the disdain. One word of warning: if you haven’t seen the other series, you’ll like get lost among the relationships, motivations, and dynamics. You could certainly muddle through if you are focused, but it’d be rough going through parts.

It was great seeing all the characters again, and I have to give major kudos for how well each character is followed, their essential inner conflict illustrated and their relationships highlighted in very succinct but full vignettes. It was great reconnecting with the characters and they were all true to their own series. Well, most of them, but I’ll get back to that later.

The events that happened between the characters individual series and this are communicated mostly in either quick visuals or asides. We thankfully see very little of Basil Exposition. This is just a part of the generally strong writing that understands most of these characters and gives us more of what we initially loved. The only problem with all the re-introduction is that there’s also a lot of stage-setting happening in parallel, and most of the first half of the eight episode series was pretty slow. There were a few action scenes, but not much and nothing too impressive. Things pick up after the heroes unite late in episode three, but that’s a long wait.

And then there’s Iron Fist. I am absolutely biased in that I love the Iron Fist of the comics who is absolutely not the Iron Fist of the Netflix series. I guess expecting four for four was too much, but it saddens me that the character I love the most is the one they fucked up (in my opinion). Iron Fist is the first character we meet, and the attempt to address the general failure of the Iron Fist series to make Finn Jones credible as the greatest martial artist on the planet failed due to the complete incomprehensibility of that first fight scene after he gets involved.

What is most frustrating is that there are glimpses of the Danny Rand of the comics – enthusiastic, flippant, friendly, optimistic – and I think Finn Jones captured that really well. The angry, angsty Danny of the Netflix series just seems as petulant here as he did in his own series. What’s worse, Colleen Wing, who came off pretty good in Iron Fist, is inconsistent here, almost like the writers didn’t know what to do with her so when they wanted someone to react in a certain way, they could always get Colleen to do it.

On the plus side, there are a couple of fights which better showcase Danny as Iron Fist, as a master martial artist, but this again is tragic to me because it illustrates the failed potential. There could have been a good Iron Fist series and we could have had a good character in the Defenders, but I guess the showrunners figured angst sells.

And to them I would point to Wonder Woman. Diana in that movie is much more like Danny Rand in the comic books than what we see on the small screen. She is not conflicted, though she is sometimes confused. She is a warrior par excellence and she revels in that. She revels in her ability to help, to protect people. That’s Danny in the comics. And he’s not perfect. He’s a tactical genius not a strategic one. That’s why he and Luke Cage make such a good team in the comics – they complement each other.

Anyway, if you aren’t as invested in Iron Fist as I am, you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the Defenders. It’s a good series,but not the best. Still, it gets back to the quality of the pre-Iron Fist shows. Iron Fist and Colleen Wing are, unfortunately, the weakest links. I haven’t even gotten into the villains, who are all interesting and presented pretty well, but that can wait until I’ve finished watching and have a more complete idea of the show and its arc.

I give the first five episodes of the Defenders 4 daring power fists of Jones out of 5. If you liked the other Marvel Netflix series, you’ll like this one. It’s slow to get going, but it’s nice to be able to spend time with most of these characters again. Iron Fist remains (sadly) the weakest of the characters but (thankfully) even he has some bright spots.

You can find out more about the Defenders at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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Killjoys: A Quick Review

I’m on episode three of season one of Killjoys, a Syfy original about interplanetary bounty hunters. It’s interplanetary rather than interstellar because these bounty hunters work a collection of four planets known as the Quad or the J Colonies. It’s obviously inspired by Firefly without being a slavish imitation of it. There’s also a hint of Cowboy Bebop, though moreso just the idea of sci fi bounty hunters than characters or feel,

Given that this is a Syfy original, I had very low expectations. So far, the series has exceeded them. The SFX are fine and the cast does a pretty credible job of providing believable characters. It’s not top tier film-making, but I think there’s a lot to enjoy and a lot of inspiration. There are some good ideas along with some groaners – the conglomerate that runs the colonies is know as . . . “the Company,” . . . wow, must have reached deep for that one. There’s nothing here, though, that wouldn’t be out of place at a game table, so I think RPGers will have some patience for it.

I give Killjoys (so far) 3.5 locked and served warrants out of 5. This isn’t prestige TV, but if you have a chance, give it an eyeball.

You can find out more about Killjoys at Wikipedia, IMDB, and Space (in Canada).

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Marco Polo (Season One)

I’ve just finished season one of Marco Polo on Netflix and I have to admit to quite enjoying it. That “I have to admit” is mostly for myself, as I watched the first two episodes about a year ago when it originally came out and walked away. I had to get myself into the Braveheart meets Gladiator zone of “historical” entertainment and then it worked. It’s enjoyable with some fun characters, smarmy intrigue, good martial arts and absolutely horrible battlefield scenes.

So this isn’t about Marco Polo. Well, it is, but it is in the same way that Forrest Gump is about late 20th century history. Polo gets shoe-horned into a bunch of important points in the period, even when he should not be there. The series understands that we basically know that Marco Polo went to China and that’s about it. We know the Mongols were tough as nails and were barbarians. That’s the level of knowledge this series assumes you have and if you have more than that, you might not have a good time. That is, until you get into that headspace that allows for the return to the Roman Republic after Commodus’ assassination and Franco-Scot noble William Wallace dressing like a 17th century Highlander while usurping Robert the Bruce’s pivotal role in assuring Scots’ independence in the 14th century.

The writing is fine but it’s not original. There’s a lot of stock characters, stock dialogue, and stock political tension and intrigue. Marco Polo gets to be involved in the aspects of Kublai Khan’s reign and conflict with Song Dynasty China that he almost certainly was not. He also gets to learn martial arts from a blind monk, and that’s really what I came back for. That was so much like Nefertiti Overdrive – throw in some martial arts, it’ll make it better! – that I had to come back. And I am glad I did.

Marco Polo is absolutely not great, but darn is it entertaining. It’s also nice the number of roles it provides for non-White actors. Heck, even the main Caucasian isn’t North American. He certainly did better with martial arts than Iron Fist did in Iron Fist. In fact, I would have been happier to have Claudia Kim (Khutulun), Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes) or Chin Han (Jia Sidao) play Danny Rand in Iron Fist given how well they pull off their fight scenes.

But this is bad history. The broad strokes are fine, but the details are almost all wrong. And the battle scenes do not please me. There are some great fight scenes – when it’s character fighting character – but when the Mongol host faces the Chinese army it really fails. I mean, it’s not alone in this – I’m looking at you, the Two Towers, with your cavalry charge downhill on loose shale, and you, the Return of the King, with another cavalry charge against a wall . . . a wall! Still, those scenes were merciful few and relatively short, whereas the rest of the series is pretty fun.

I give Marco Polo season one four hastily erected for false tension trebuchets out of five. That’s for entertainment value rather than quality. It’s a great costumer with action and drama, and a lot of fun characters and situations that draws one along with its story even when one is shaking one’s head.

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New Daughters, New Glory

I’ve written before about the novel I was working on called Daughter of Glory. About a year ago, I was looking at updating it and considering how I might best present it. Just recently I was plotting out a story of two young sisters who are caught up in political and religious turmoil that separates them from their parents. I recognize the similarity of the two stories and was thinking I could merge them, bolt the story of the two sisters onto Daughter of Glory.

But that’s a bad idea for two reasons: 1) it will never fit perfectly and 2) even trying to do so is lazy.

“Sorceress” by nanami-yuki

Daughter of Glory was high fantasy with elves and dwarves and archmages throwing lightning around. I envisioned the two sisters’ story (let’s just call it Two Sisters) as low fantasy, with some magic but no other races. Cultures, oh my yes, but not elves, dwarves, fairies or orcs. The amount of re-working that would need to happen would be immense and would likely show.

And, really, why would I even want to? Yes, I had a huge amount already finished on Daughter of Glory, and that might give me a leg up (not necessarily would, but might), but that’s its own kind of trap. Have I not learned anything since I originally wrote those words? Am I not a different writer now than then? I believe the answer to both is yes. Using the words written by that other writer, that me from many years ago, is a cheat that could lead to a worse product. It might be easier, but easier is not better.

So in the end, I think I need to pursue Two Sisters and abandon Daughter of Glory. If I do want to return to Daughter of Glory, I need to use that which is written as a guideline, rather than a shortcut. Those words were written, and they served their purpose – practice. The development of that idea helped me to improve my writing. Its work is done.

But my work goes on.

You can read more about Daughter of Glory here.

Art for this article from nanami-yuki at deviantART.

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Wonder Woman, A Review

On Father’s Day I had the rare opportunity to view a movie in its native environment – the theatre. The whole family went to check out Wonder Woman, and I am so glad that we did – certainly for my wife and daughters but also absolutely for me.

There are certainly problems with this movie, and if an “Everything Wrong With . . .” video happens, it’ll probably reach into 20 minute+ territory, but y’know what? I couldn’t care less. We could do the same with Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Don’t care. Love those movies, and I love this one.

Do I need to explain the plot? It’s World War I and an errant American spy working for British intelligence breaches the isolation of Themyscira where we have watched a young girl grow into a consummate warrior. Her sense of honour forces her to leave her home because she believes she can help stop the war and save innocent lives.

To say this is a bright film misses the fact that it focuses on the tragedy of war, both for those involved in the fighting and for those caught in the middle. But it is a bright film – bright like Superman, and a recent Directors’ Guild of America interview with director Patty Jenkins reveals the truth of this. Superman was an inspiration to her, and in the interview she explains to its director – Richard Donner – just how much he influenced and inspired her.

This movie honestly has everything I love: great action, solid characters, heroics, nobility, and a light touch. The actors inhabit the roles and even the supporting cast are given enough personality to make me care about them, and each had a few moments to shine. None of this matters if the main actor isn’t believable and charismatic. Gal Gadot is both. She really embodies Wonder Woman in the way that Christopher Reeve embodied Superman and the way I think Chris Evans embodies Captain America. These characters are all noble warriors who fight not because of a love of war but to protect those who cannot fight for themselves. They are selfless and truly heroic. The movie delivers on this.

My daughters loved the movie. I can’t say it was a revelatory to them as many situations related elsewhere, but they were very pleased to see a woman be the hero and the leader. My wife may have loved it more than my daughters, saying it was great to see a woman who was so physically dominant, so capable, and unyielding in her beliefs and righteousness.

I got to say, I feel the same.

I give Wonder Woman 4.5 invisible invisible planes out of 5. This is a fantastically enjoyable movie that has some plot holes and other problems, but I could not care less about it. This is an amazing movie and the easily rivals Nolan’s first two Batman movies and Donner’s Superman as the best DC superhero movie.

You can find out more about Wonder Woman at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can hear the Patty Jenkins interview here.

You don’t know about the “Everything Wrong With . . .” videos on Youtube?

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I’m An Imposter

In honour of the Imposters funding (Todd Crapper and Josh T. Jordan on the same project? The collected awesome of that project will undoubtedly create a singularity of awesome, but instead of nothing escaping the event horizon, it will constantly release awesome into the universe), let me put on my imposter hair-shirt for just a moment.

Recently, people gave me a bunch of money to update Sword’s Edge. They continue to drop money they have earned with their hard work to get me to ship physical products to them. Somewhere else on the internet today, somebody bought a bunch of adventures I wrote between 2004 and 2005 (with a slight detour into 2008). Every time I look at the amount of money somebody spends on my stuff I get the feeling that they are going to be the one to realize I am a fraud. That they are going to turn around and say: “Why am I paying you for this shit? You suck at this.”

I was the spotlight author in issue 79 of the Canadian speculative fiction magazine On Spec and I described myself as a hack. That’s kind of how I have always envisioned myself. I am a worker, not an artist. If I get paid for stuff, it’s because it’s good enough, not because it is good.

I read games that other designers create and I read fiction that other authors write and I am often inspired to attack my own work with more gusto, but then I look at my stuff and I compare it to their stuff and I often think that the world would be better off if I just stopped.

The weird thing is that while people paying money can trigger this, the fact that people will pay me money is one of the signals that I use to continue to work. There are people who have bought all my games, and that boggles my mind. There are people in this world that actually see my name attached to something and decide to buy it. It is really weird to both be terrified and energized by the fact that people pay money for my stuff, but there it is.

I’m an imposter. Please feel free to be that person who calls me on my BS.

You can find out more about the Imposters here.

The amazing Josh T Jordan runs Ginger Goat.

The awesome Todd Crapper runs Broken Ruler Games.

You can read some reviews of On Spec issue 79 and my place in it, both complimentary and not so much.

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Through the Gate in the Sea: A Review

I was quite thrilled when I heard that Through the Gate in the Sea was available. I’m a fan of Howard Andrew Jones’ work, and while I consider his non-tie-in fiction to be his strongest, I will always buy a book with his name on it. As such, I have all four of his Pathfinder novels. As you might imagine, I’m positively inclined toward his fiction, so that’s the bias I bring to this review.

I have a hard time deciding if I like this or its predecessor, Beyond the Pool of Stars, better. Like Beyond the Pool of Stars, Through the Gate in the Sea reads much more like heroic fantasy with touches of epic fantasy rather than gaming fiction. There are hints throughout that yes, this is rooted in the rules and expectations of a role-playing game, but this does not dominate the flavour of the book. If you cringe at tie-in fiction – which I honestly generally do with a couple of exceptions – you needn’t fear this novel. It is not as strong as the Desert of Souls or the Bones of the Old Ones – Howard Andrew Jones’ two novels with Dabir and Asim, his best works for certain – but it is riveting.

Basically, Through the Gate in the Sea takes off soon after Beyond the Pool of Stars ends, with main character Mirian Raas, a marine salvager, trying to help the lizardfolk with whom she has forged a familial bond, find more of their lost people. This allows for one of the best POV characters in the novel: Jekka, a lizardfolk warrior. Jekka is Mirian’s blood brother, and while he is a cool customer, the chance to find more of his people after losing all of his clan save his cousin, fires him up.

There’s a great villain, a fantastic anti-hero with whom I can definitely sympathize, the playwright-hero Ivrian, and much more. The characters are all excellent and believable, but this – along with brisk, exciting pacing and swashbuckling action – is one of Howard Andrew Jones’ strengths.

The only quibble I have with the novel is that there is a group of adversaries that seem unnecessary. They have a function in the story, but then kind of drift off and don’t have a really impactful exit. I was expecting more given how well Howard Andrew Jones sculpted the main character of this group, and I don’t really want to say more so as not to spoil anyone’s suspense. It’s funny, because I can easily imagine in real-life this exact situation – oh jeez, those guys are pretty tough, this could be a problem . . . wait, what happened to them? In fiction, though, one carries expectations. So maybe I’m talking myself out of the quibble in that it’s actually believable in the way that reality is crazier than any fiction, but for the story I would say I didn’t find it satisfying.

That one quibble apart, Howard Andrew Jones delivered exactly what his name on a cover promises – strong plot, exciting action, and great characters. That’s what I love.

I give Through the Gate in the Sea 4.75 non-submersible, highly mobile, undersea transports out of 5. If you dig fantasy – and especially if you dig heroic fantasy with a hint of high magic and epic threats – you’ll dig this. As with all of his books, I highly recommend this Howard Andrew Jones novel.

You can find Through the Gate in the Sea at Paizo here and Amazon here.

You can learn more about Howard Andrew Jones here.

I reviewed Beyond the Pool of Stars here.

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