The Mayor – A Review

With a bunch of new Korean movies up on Netflix, my wife has been binging. She was kind enough to leave one for us to watch together, and she did so because it stars one of South Korea’s greatest actors and a favourite of both of us, Choi Min-Sik.

The Mayor is about the Mayor of Seoul attempting to get re-elected to a record third term. This isn’t an actioner or genre pic, but a straight-up drama with aspects of a thriller. It starts out showing the two faces of this politician – the public affability and the private ruthlessness. The Mayor, who comes from humble origins but has profited greatly from his time in municipal politics, is assisted by an equally ruthless councilman, and the two recruit a young ad executive to help with the re-election campaign.

The acting was uniformly good, as one always hopes in a dramatic presentation. Choi Min-Sik, of course, was a stand-out. He always delivers an amazing performance. You can never see the acting, and you can never tell he’s wearing a mask. Even when his characters are wearing a mask, as the Mayor is when in public, Choi only provides hints and cues, he never goes broad, though sometimes his characters do.

Although I didn’t live in Seoul when I was in South Korea, there are areas of it I knew very well. These days, the few trips I’ve been able to make back have been to Seoul, and I love seeing it on the screen – not as much as I love visiting it, but I’ll take what I can get. It shows both the fancy and wealthy parts but also the small and pedestrian, like a dingy galbi restaurant probably situated in a side-alley off the main road.

The problem with the movie comes at about the half-way point. This is where its verisimilitude, for me, cracked. It pushed too hard on my willing suspension of disbelief, and became almost soap operatic. I don’t mean in its melodrama, because that’s a facet of Korean cinema I’ve come to appreciate, but in its unreality. The number of events that stack up against the Mayor and their increasing intensity was too much. One or two, perhaps, but as the hits and twists kept coming, the movie lost me.

As much as I enjoyed the first half, I would recommend instead Nameless Gangster – if You haven’t seen it. It’s not on Canadian Netflix any longer, but find it elsewhere as it is both a great showcase for Choi Min-Sik and a straight up fantastic story.

I give The Mayor 3 oh-my-god-how-can-this-be-happening-and-how-can-we-cover-it-up-in-the-most-ruthless-way-possibles out of 5. Choi Min-Sik’s performance pulled me through the whole movie but it broke my willing suspension of disbelief earlier. Check out Nameless Gangster instead.

You can find out more about The Mayor at Wikipedia or IMDB.

You can find out more about Nameless Gangster at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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Blade Runner 2049: Thoughts

I go see very few movies in the theatre, but a sequel to Blade Runner? That had to have the full cinematic experience. A couple of friends also wanted to check it out, so I dropped my money for a Tuesday showing (because it’s cheaper . . . as am I) and we plopped down in our seats.

I am a fan of the original Blade Runner, and more specifically, the first Director’s Cut from 1991. I found a lot to love in the movie, from the setting to the story, to the noir influences. I probably can’t objectively relate to it as it’s been a huge part of my cultural landscape since I was old enough to actually think about the things I was reading and seeing.

That should help situate you for this, because I really enjoyed the experience, and while it might not be the equal of the original, I don’t think anything possibly could be. I think the story was simpler in the original and while 2049 might be a little overstuffed – its running time is 163 minutes – the movie went by quite quickly for me and I was immersed the whole time.

Without spoiling anything, Ryan Gosling plays a Blade Runner in the world 30 years after the original movie. He hunts replicants, and stumbles across a secret that his superior believes could ignite a rebellion between the manufactured workforce and their Human masters. I don’t want to say more than that and the people behind the movie have actually asked that spoilers not be shared. I don’t think this is necessary to the enjoyment of the movie, but it’s also not important to give a general impression of the film.

Everyone seems to agree that the visuals and the soundscape – both the music and the sound engineering more generally – are exemplary. This is an absolutely beautiful movie and one other reason to see it in the theatre is the impact of the sound. Not just the music but the environmental sounds. This is incredibly rich and textured, and you need the best of equipment to fully enjoy both. At times, the heavy bass of the score overwhelmed the sound system of the theatre in which I saw it, and this might be a case where one should splurge and watch it in the best-equipped cinema one can. I saw it in a standard theatre format – no special sound, no IMAX, nothing.

In the Slate Spoiler Special concerning 2049, the hosts complain that there are apparently very many motifs that don’t make sense – Bible references that don’t line up or are contradictory. One of the reasons I could never be an actual critic is that I am not watching a film to deconstruct it but to enjoy it. Maybe if those motifs don’t work the way one expects them to, that is based on one’s faulty expectations and perhaps these are not what you think they are. Just because the character is named Joe, is it necessarily a reference to Joseph the father of Jesus? Maybe one thinks it should be, but if that interpretation doesn’t work with the film as presented, perhaps the director did not agree?

Neither of my friends enjoyed the movie as much as I did. I also don’t think either was as invested in the original as I am. In fact, One friend was very lukewarm on the movie, so I know my experience is not universal, but I found the story and characters worked very well.

The key to all this seems to be one’s opinion of Ryan Gosling’s performance, or perhaps the character he portrays. For me, I was invested in the character, and while I can see why one would expect the character to be an echo of Deckard – whom he resembles very closely in many aspects – I think that he also has many aspects of a different, important character in the original – which is highlighted at the end of the movie. The main difference is that he has Deckard’s cynicism but the other character’s drive. I think it makes a very interesting synthesis.

The one problem that is obvious is the Firefly problem – for a culture apparently steeped in Asian culture (and we prominently see Chinese, Japanese, and Korean text) there were no Asians. There were very few non-White roles at all and no major ones. I honestly find that a real problem, and if you have to ask why I think you may not have been paying attention the last decade or so.

In the end, I found this an amazing cinematic experience. This is a movie I will want to watch regularly. Definitely getting the blu-ray when it comes out. I think it’s a fitting sequel, and it is a much better sequel than I had any hope of ever seeing.

I give Blade Runner 2049 4.5 new-fangled, auto-piloting, kitted up spinner vehicle out of 5. Sumptuous visuals, impressive score and sound engineering and an engaging story make this a great film, an absolute necessity for fans of the original. While its languid pace was welcome, it is a hefty movie that could probably lose a few minutes here and there. The biggest issue was its love affair with Asian culture but not Asian people which really creates a problem of versimilitude in the setting.

You can find out more about Blade Runner 2049 at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can find the Slate Spoiler Special here.

At least Slate’s Stephen Metcalf on the Slate Culture Gabfest agrees with me! That episode is here.

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That Dungeon is Dark!

Things have been quiet because all of my writing has been focused on getting a substantial buffer for my Patreon (you are backing my Patreon, right? I mean, of course you are!). Things are looking good as the releases up to and including January are complete and I’ve got a lot of work already done on February’s release, so I might be able to ease up soon.

Sometimes I need a break. I have about an hour – sometimes less – to myself, and these days I’ve been playing Darkest Dungeon.

In Darkest Dungeon you assemble teams to enter dungeons – big surprise – from a home-base in a run-down village that has been negatively impacted by its proximity to all this evil and supernatural menace. Each type of character has special attacks and buff-abilities, and there are four destinations, each with different standard opponents.

The idea is to build a bench of specialists and choose the correct team to assault the dungeon. I don’t know the proper terminology for this stuff, but the characters move along the screen in sideview (sidescrolling? I actually don’t think that’s correct, but it seems right). Fights are turn based – almost like D&D – and characters can get magic items that help and hinder them.

Stress is also hugely important, and while it’s pretty easy to repair physical damage – there are a couple of classes with that as either a specialty or option – healing stress is very hard unless one makes camp. There is one class with an optional skill that helps, but generally it’s tough to recover from stress and too much stress can severely negatively impact a character and possibly even kill them. It can get pretty dark and pretty frustrating.

To be honest, I can’t explain why I like it as much as I do, but for me it’s addictive. I have specific classes that I really like and other classes that are somewhat useful and help round out a team. Never get too attached to any character, though, because death is always right around the corner.

I give Darkest Dungeon 4.5 blight-resistant, bleed-attacking, stress-relieving Jesters out of 5. It’s not high octane action but there’s something satisfying about building powerful characters and seeing a thoughtful strategy bear fruit. Even the frustration of bad rolls is present, though not as satisfying.

You can find out more about Darkest Dungeon here.

Please support me through my Patreon.

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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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