Sunday, March 30, 2014

Movie #243: Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince is the sixth movie in the series, and welcomes back the old cast and adds (finally) Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn. This is the "Snape kills Dumbledore" movie, by the way.

Harry and company return to Hogwart's, Harry still shaken by Sirius' death the previous year. Dumbledore isn't doing the "act all aloof" thing anymore. Instead, he's very much taken Harry into his confidence. He asks Harry to get close to the new Potions teacher, Slughorn, because Slughorn has a creepy obsession with getting close to the best students for his "Wall of Fame" (which includes Tom Riddle, among others).

Harry does this with the help of a marked-up copy of a potions book he finds, labeled "Property of the Half-Blood Prince". He becomes a potions expert, but not really, he's just following the recipes and advice in the book. Much of the sub-plots here involve Ron getting a girlfriend (who falls for him watching him play Quidditch) and Harry finally hitting it off with Ginny (to her credit, the actress playing Ginny, Bonne Wright, has grown up into a truly impressive young lady and makes the most of her brief scenes).

Finally, Harry talks Slughorn into showing him what he wants - a memory of Tom Riddle asking about "horcruxes," basically an object into which one puts a piece of one's soul. It turns out Riddle made six horcruxes. Dumbledore has already found and destroyed one, and the diary that Harry destroyed back in Chamber of Secrets was another. Now, Harry and Dumbledore set out to find a third, but doing so poisons Dumbledore. When they return, Death-Eaters attack, and Severus Snape murders Dumbledore and reveals himself to be the Half-Blood Prince.

Like all of the movies, a lot was cut. The subplots they've kept mostly revolve around Tom Riddle, and the romantic relationships between the students. The cinematography is amazing (it was nominated for an Oscar for it), and there's a visual theme of ink and like materials spreading through water. We lose some of the impact of Dumbledore's death not seeing his funeral, but the Dark Mark over Hogwart's was a nice touch.

By this point in the series, everyone's established in the roles, and they don't waste any time on exposition of previous plot points, which I'm finding is a lot easier to take watching these movies a few days apart, rather than a few years. I like this movie, though I find that it feels a little thin for some of the cuts and it doesn't transition as smoothly through the year as Azkaban or Order.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows pt. 1

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie #242: Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix is the fifth movie in the series, but you'll notice it's the fourth movie in my progression. That's because I don't own Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire. We did watch it recently, though, because Michelle had never seen it, and I though maybe it wasn't as bad I remembered. I was wrong; it was.

Briefly, because it may become relevant: Goblet of Fire was bad not because of the massive amount of stuff cut from the book. The book is huge, and whole subplots had to go in order to make the movie make sense. The movie was bad because a) it focuses entirely on the angsty, awkward, teens-in-British-school bits and not nearly enough on the holy-shit-there-is-magic-happening bits. We don't have any connection to the Tri-Wizard Tournament. There's no reason to care. It's obviously a set-up, from the very beginning. And then Cedric (Robert Pattinson) dies, and we're supposed to react in a way other than "well, yeah, if Dumbledore had just said 'this is obviously a set-up', then we could have ignored it." It does, however, introduce Brandon Gleeson as Alastor Moody and David Tennant as Barty Crouch, Jr., and so the casting remains, as always, spot-on.

Anyway, Order of the Phoenix opens with Harry getting confronted by his big stupid cousin, Dudley (Harry Melling), and then them both getting attacked by dementors. Harry drives them off, but then promptly gets expelled for doing magic outside of school. He has a hearing at the Ministry of Magic, and the Minister Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) seems bound and determined to expel Harry, and refuses to believe that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) could possibly have returned.

Let me pause, here. One of the huge plot holes in the Potterverse is that there exist multiple ways to verify that Harry is, in fact, telling the truth. In fact, at least three of them show up in this movie. There's a potion that forces you to tell the truth. There's legilomancy (mind reading). There's the fucking pensieve, which allows others to relieve your memories. Even if Fudge is dead-set on ignoring what's going on, there was a whole room full of wizards and witches who seemed open to the possibility. Anyway.

So Harry goes to Hogwarts, but Dumbledore acts like a total tool and brushes him off. And he has bigger issues anyway; there's a secret Order of the Phoenix, consisting of some badass wizards. Some we know (Lupin, Sirius, Moody, Dumbledore, Arthur Weasley, and Snape, of all people) and some we just meet, including Tonks (Natalia Tena) and Kingsley Shacklebolt (George Harris). Harry wants to go and fight; they tell him that's a bad idea and clearly something else is going on, but they won't tell him what. So he goes back to school, and meets the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher...the worst fucking person in the Potterverse. Dolores Umbrige (Imelda Staunton).

Umbrige is someone I particularly hate because she's the kind of mindless bureaucratic zealot that would love standardized testing. She infantilizes the students, sucks up to the higher-ups, and basically takes over the school. Meanwhile, Harry and company form a club they call Dumbledore's Army, where Harry gets to teach his classmates about defending against real dark magic...which it turns out he's pretty good at.

Into the mix, though, he's having these weird dreams where he's a snake killing people at Voldemort's behest, and Dumbledore responds by having Snape try and teach him the art of shielding his mind from intrusion. It doesn't help, there's a huge battle at the Ministry of Magic after Voldemort lures Harry there, Sirius dies fighting Death-Eaters (murdered by Bellatrix Lestrange, played by Helena Bonham Carter, because when you're casting "crazy witch" why not go for the best choice?), and Harry discovers a prophecy that indicates that only he or Voldemort can survive; one must kill the other.

I like this movie a lot. I don't like it as much as Azkaban, I don't think, but at this point that might be because I'm such a fan of Cuaron. But this one has a lot to recommend it - the fear of a looming threat is well-established, the magic is present and vibrant and awesome to watch, and although Harry does flounce a bit, he also grapple with the (perfectly natural) anger and loss he's feeling in a believable way. Unlike Goblet, this one spreads its focus out, flows nicely from one point to the next, and doesn't have a fucking five-minute bathtub scene.

My Grade: A-
Rewatch Value: Medium-low

Next up: Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Character Creation: Diaspora

+Cheyenne Rae Grimes requested to play this game. I don't run a lot of sci-fi, certainly not hard sci-fi, but it might be fun. As always, however, I prefer to expose myself to the system a little bit. I think it's safe to say that somewhere in the glittering cosmos, there might be a mall planet.

Maybe not. But anyway, on we go.

The Game: Diaspora
The Publisher: VSCA
Degree of Familiarity: I've run and played a lot of Fate, but never this game in particular.
Books Required: Just the one.

Diaspora is, as I mentioned, a hard sci-fi RPG in early Fate. We start, as in many Fate games, by making characters in a group, but here we also make systems (as in, star systems) which are joined into a cluster. FTL travel happens within this cluster.

Now, I really like the group chargen thing, but as before when I've similar games, I shall just have to wing it.

I just need to do one system; if we had a group, we'd each do one. I make three rolls, one for Technology, one for Environment, and one for Resources, and then I put it all together and try to make it make sense. I have my Fate dice; 'scuse me a moment. OK, I get T0, E-1, R0. Hrm. Nothing stellar.

Hee. Pun.

Well, reading the descriptions of all this, this system has one survivable world, enough resources that it doesn't gain anything by importing, and technology sufficient to get off-world and explore, but not to have commercial spacecraft. Let's say that the system (called Haynor) has a few planets, but one (Thohn) is closest to the star and therefore has just enough heat to sustain life. It also has a weird orbit, so it when it was colonized years ago, the folks doing the colonization figured it would stay warm longer than it did. It's been colonized for a good long while, but the inhabitants are starting to figure out that this ice isn't really going's getting worse "year" by "year." The space-tech that they used to come here is obsolete and doesn't do well in this environment, but it works well enough to get off-planet. Problem is, there's nowhere better to go.

The sky on Thohn is white or gray. There's always a thin layer of snow (in the warmest places) or a layer of permafrost (in the places that really suck). Sunshine is a universally accepted reason to stop working and run out under the sky, because it only tends to last 15 minutes or so. There's not much life, other than people (colonists).

Now, normally I come up with two Aspects for my system, and then the group would help come up with a final one that represents the system's place in the cluster. But since I have no group, I'll do all three. I'll give it We Are a Hardy People (representing the fact that inhabitants of Thohn tend to be pretty tough, given how damn cold it is), The Only Way Out is Off (the planet self-sustaining, but not for long), and, to give it a place in the cluster, Forgotten System (Haynor isn't even in a lot of history books).

All right, now we make my character in particular. This works a lot like other Fate games. My first thing is Aspects. I'll wind up with 10 of them (this is something that changed in Fate Core, and I'm glad of it, because 10 is too much).

Phase One: Growing Up: This is meant to establish my home system. I suppose if I had a group and we did group system/cluster design, I'd have a few to choose from, but as I don't, my guy is from Thohn. His name is Myler Shaunessy (I like "Myler", kind of in the same vein as the names in Hunger Games; they sound real, but just unreal enough to let you know that the setting isn't ours). So, Myler's from Thohn. We'll say that Myler's father worked himself to death out in the snow; hypothermia is the most common way to die on Thohn, and if you get working hard enough you fall victim to the "I am freezing to death but my body thinks it's warm" issue. So dad died when Myler was just a boy, and his mother is somewhat distant because of it. I'll take All Work and No Play Makes You Dead and Home Fires Burn Bright. I see Myler as yearning for the family that ice took away.

Phase Two: Starting Out: Myler wanted to get the hell off Thohn, but passed up several opportunities to do so. Why? What's so special about him? Well, we'll say he's a Master of Spatial Geometry; he's got an affinity for that kind of math, which is very hand when planning space flights. But although he could have shipped out pretty much any time, he didn't want to leave his mother behind. When she finally died (a lung condition exacerbated by the cold), Myler felt there was Nothing For Me on Thohn anymore.

Phase Three: Moment of Crisis: This something that created change in Myler. Let's assume he shipped out a month after Mom died. The space flight was planned perfectly, but one of the other crew members fucked up his calculations, and the air mixture was off. The crew started to hallucinate from lack of oxygen (or too much, who knows) and Myler wound up hiding in an escape pod while the others killed each other. The Massacre Aboard the Celestine haunts him still. He launched the pod and was picked up by another ship with jump capability, and spent a month in quarantine. I'll take Lost in My Own Mind as the other Aspect; Myler is smart and contemplative, but he's withdrawn and prone to daydreaming.

Phase Four: Sidetracked: This is about things out of my control. Normally this would involve one of the other players, as would Phase Three, but since I don't have a group, I'll assume that one of the other players might be on the ship that rescued me. That player's player might have seen that I had Blood on My Hands, the implication being that Myler might have killed one of his crew and forgotten or lied about it. I'll also take an Aspect of Killer Instinct; Myler is not someone to fuck with. He doesn't engage casual threats, but if you're really intent on hurting him, he doesn't hesitate.

Phase Five: On Your Own: This is "now". (We're at now, now. When will then be now? Soon.) Myler seeks clarity, I think. He wants to leave behind the trauma of the Celestine and the grief of his childhood, but to do that, he needs to find happiness and peace. Troubled Genius is good, I think, as an Aspect. I think Myler keeps his quarters cold (he's just used to the ambient temp being low) whenever he can, and is Painfully Formal to people around him.

Right, that's Aspects. Now, Skills. These work in a pyramid, and it's all laid out on the sheet, so that's nice. I know I want Science as my Apex (level 5) Skill. I'll take Navigation and Engineering as my level 4's. For the level 3, I'll take Survival (learned growing up), Stealth (he's just naturally quiet) and Resolve.

For the level 2 Skills, I want Repair, Pilot, MicroG, and Close Combat. And finally at level 1, I take Intimidation, Computer, Brokerage, Assets (some money is good), and Alertness.

For stress tracks, I have three boxes in Health (since I have no Stamina), 5 boxes in Composure (since I do have Resolve) and four in Wealth (since I have Assets).

Now, Stunts. I have three of them. Unlike Spirit of the Century and Dresden, this gives me things that stunts can do across the board and information on building my own. So. I want to be able to use Science in place of Charm; Myler's not terrible good with people, but he's very, very smart, and he can dazzle people with his quiet knowledge. I can use Science at 3 without a Fate point, or at 5 if I spend one. I'll take Military-Grade Navigation, which allows me to place three ships during the detection phase of ship combat. I don't know what that means, but it sounds cool and vaguely geometrical. Finally, I'll use a stunt to add another Consequence; I'm Resilient. I use 4 consequences instead of 3 (it doesn't say if that applies to all tracks, but if not, Physical).

And that's it! Neato.

Workin' on Sunday, part one: Better Angels

Played Better Angels yesterday, so I'm gonna do that write-up. I must say, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this system. Maybe I'll start a thread over on RPG.Net and see if folks have thoughts.

Anyway, last time, the characters killed a bunch of cops, and Arvo met up with the woman who'd taken the amulet of Davros, formerly owned by John Calhoun, aka Ravenous.

So this time, we open in the morning. Arvo calls up Willa and tells her about that encounter. Livi, at home with her parents after her somewhat traumatic day of turning into a giant Komodo dragon and killing a guy, is watching the news and eating breakfast. She learns that the true identity of the Radiant, the angel-bearer that the characters killed in Olympic Park, is Frank Vittorio, and he was a mechanic in Atlanta. Livi borrows her dad's phone and calls Willa, and they conspire for Willa to come pick Livi up, posing as the aunt of a friend of hers, for a play date. Willa calls Gary and Arvo, and they all reunite, figuring to go check out Vittori's garage.

There's a city-wide manhunt going on for the people who killed four cops yesterday, of course, so the Hellbinders have to be careful. They get to the garage, and find that there are two undercover policemen in a car across the street, watching the garage. Gary and Livi go into a convenience store to get Livi a drink (he buys her a Monster, because all of these people are horrible), while Arvo and Willa scout the garage. Avro wakes up his demon, Nidhogg, and gets him to turn on Invisibility. He then sneaks into the garage and pokes around.

He finds a notebook that looks like it's written in decidedly different hand than the other invoices and so on that Frank had written. This one describes a plan to fly above the city and play a tune that would cause all of the demons to vacate their hosts. Arvo steals the notebook, and flips the switch that opens the door to the garage.

Livi, meanwhile, is fairly convinced she can drive, and her demon, Glasya-Labolas, agrees. It activates Giant (but just enough) and Livi takes the cops' car and tries to drive off. She fails, however, and his a light pole. The cops see her, and she gets out. They draw down, and start to call for backup, but Willa (having gotten her Wings from Baal), swoops in and grabs a cop, and drops him in a tree. Arvo, invisible, tackles the other cop, grabs his gun, and shoots out the tires of the cop car. He tosses the empty gun back to the cop and taunts him, and the characters leave the two terrified and confused police behind (got some Espionage increases, there).

They drive around a bit, stop for ice cream, and figure that after yesterday's shenanigans, Willa's house might not be safe for long. So they go to her place and grab her stuff, and take it to Arvo's hotel room (he doesn't actually live in Atlanta).

When they get there, they find the door open and the place is being tossed - by the woman Arvo met yesterday. She calls herself "Creature" and has grow claws and thick fur. She refuses to give the characters her real name, and mocks them for being so overt in their activities. She is looking for the fiddle, and claims she wants to destroy it. She knows about a cult dedicated to the angels, and knows they meet somewhere near the park. Livi mentions that she saw the men loading the fiddle into the car, but can't remember the name of the church. Creature takes Willa's number and leaves, promising to contact the characters if she learns anything. The characters, needless to say, do not trust her.

They take Livi home later on, and again find the door ajar - this time the frame splintered. Gary goes in and finds Livi's mother, alive but hurt, on the floor, and the characters see Creature with Livi's father pinned to the island in the kitchen. They get there in time to hear him blurt out "Greater Vine Baptist Church", and then she snarls and jumps through the glass sliding door, into the back yard.

But Livi is already there, and she's pissed. She assumes giant flaming Komodo dragon form, and attacks. Creature scores some hits on her, but between the fire and the strength, Creature is slashes and bitten into submission fairly quickly (an Enervating blast from Gary and a few Withers from Arvo don't hurt. Rather, they do). Creature surrenders and claims that she knows where the fiddle is. Willa tells Livi that she can always eat Creature later, once they have the fiddle, and Livi finally acquiesces, changes back to human form, and climbs up into the tree house just as the police arrive. Willa, Gary, and Arvo leave, taking Creature with them, and slip out of the neighborhood in a flurry of lights.

Next time: Strenuous negotiation!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Movie #241: Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban

Hey, we're back, after the crazy of Oscars and the other assorted madness!

Anyway, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third movie in the Harry Potter series, but the first really good one. That's because they got Alfonso Cuaron to direct it, as well as the stars from the first two, plus David Thewlis as Remis Lupin, Michael Gambon replacing Richard Harris as Dumbledore, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawny, and Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew.

I really like this movie, and it's not just because I'm a big fan of Cuaron. While the first two Potter movies were hamstrung by worrying too much about what to put in or leave out, Cuaron just kind of said "fuck it" and kept the important stuff.

Anyway, it's year three at Hogwarts, and Harry, after having a row with his aunt and uncle and storming out (as teens are wont to do), nearly gets attacked (he thinks) by a big black dog. Then he goes to Hogwarts, but first he learns that Sirius Black, supposedly one of Voldemort's biggest fans and the man who betrayed Harry's parents (despite being Harry's godfather!), has escaped from Azkaban. On the way to Hogwarts, he's attacked by horrible wraith-like creatures that suck the joy right out of you, but upon getting to Hogwarts...keeps getting attacked by them (this, by the way, was the story in which the uncomfortable truth that the adults of the wizarding world are complete flaming idiots becomes readily apparent). He learns from his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher how to defend against them, and, more importantly, meets some of the people who were friends with his parents in school.

And then Sirius shows up, and no, it's not Sirius who betrayed James and Lilly Potter, it was Peter Pettigrew, who has spent the last 12 years disguised as Ron Weasley's rat. Consternations! Uproar!

In the end, Pettigrew escapes, Sirius is forced back on the lam, Lupin leaves Hogwarts because he's a fucking werewolf, and Harry goes back to the Dursleys because fuck that kid.

Now, plot holes aside (and there a few, but they're intrinsic to the series and I don't care about them much), there are a few issues with this movie. First, Cuaron assumes you've read the book. We never learned that Lupin was one of the creators of the Marauder's Map. Sirius never signs the permission slip for Harry to go to Hogsmeade, which was kind of a big deal in the book. And so on. These things are deleted scenes, sure, but it's weird that they were deleted.

But now let's talk about the good stuff. Cuaron taught Daniel Radcliffe to act. He taught the kids to have some chemistry with each other. He got Grint to stop mugging for the camera. And the movie itself is just rich with imagery and business in the backgrounds. The first two had magic; this one obviously takes place in a magical world. Cuaron might have done well to respect the source material's letter a little more, but he sure did right by the spirit.

Sadly, it's the only one he directed, and even more sadly it's followed by Goblet of Fire, which is easily the worst of the movies (and the only one I don't own). But this one is probably my favorite.

My grade: A-
Rewatch value: Medium

Next up: Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix

Night's Black Agents: AT THE MALL

OK, first thing's first: Our Mall Adventures Kickstarter is live! You should go back it! But honestly, if you're reading this you probably already know about it. But I'm totally gonna put a link into every post I do until it's over.

But anyway, Sunday we played Night's Black Agents, sans +Matthew Karafa, which means that the group was missing some...caution. Read on.

The characters, recall, were in Rome, and had received word that the diary of a 16th century Hungarian nobleman, offering information about vampires, was up for sale from a bookseller who was, shall we say, very eager to get rid of it. And now he'd disappeared.

The characters drove up to Szeged and took lodging in a hotel, and then staked out the home/office of Imre Szabo, the bookseller. After sitting on it for a day, they were satisfied that no one was watching the place, and went in. Lockwood picked the lock and looked around, Smith patrolled the area on foot, and Hanover and Rousseau watched from the van (David was still in Rome, working the lab, we decided).

Lockwood discovered that the place had been tossed, but very carefully - she saw evidence that he was missing and he hadn't left willingly, but the place wasn't destroyed. She did find a pressurized glass door leading to his rare books room, so she opened the electronic lock. Hanover, watching from her glasses cam, noted the order and organization of the books, and indeed, there was a space where the diary should have been. Interestingly, there was also a space in maps & atlases, and after Lockwood grabbed his laptop, they realized that there was a 1950s atlas of the Belgrade area that should have been there. But why would the vampires take that? It's not like it's hard to get one - in fact, Rousseau ordered one just afterwards. Probably a red herring.

On her way out, Lockwood got a small burst of static. She found a tiny camera, hidden above the door frame. Rousseau found the signal, and they traced it back to a weird building within sight of the Votive Church. Figuring maybe they'd found something, they went in, making Infiltration rolls to stay stealthy...but one of them (Hanover) failed.

Inside the building, they discovered it had no power. Pulling out night-sight goggles, they found the placed had been wired to go up in a blazing inferno. Lockwood and Smith went to work disarming the device, while Hanover and Rousseau heard someone screaming for help. They went to investigate, and found Imre Szabo tied to a chair, an explosive device under it and wired to his body.

Smith disarmed, that, too, and they started heading out. But then Smith realized that the door they came in was visible from the flat rooftop of the Votive Church - if he was going to snipe some fools, that's where he'd do it. Rousseau called on her knowledge of Architecture (not an ability that gets a lot of play) and figured out where the stairs were, and they headed up to a landing on the opposite site of the building.

They opened the door and saw four thugs with guns. Hanoever, who'd gone first, shot one of them dead and popped back in. They realized these thugs reminded them a lot of the folks they'd shot at way back in Budapest, rather than trained ops or cops. So they cracked the door, Smith tossed out a flash-bang, and they popped out and shot them all, and then used their rope-ladder to get down to the ground and stole the thugs' van.

Hanover called his buddy Janos, the vehicle expert, and got a safe house with a garage to use, and they headed there, figuring the Heat was going up. And they sent for David, who will be joining them for our session in April.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Monsterfreakin'hearts: Death Wish

So! Yesterday was Monsterhearts. Shall we?

Last time, the characters made some progress in their quest to shut down the cannibal cult. This time, they made more progress...but they also suffered some gruesome setbacks.

We open at Briar's house. Last night, Skylar, Cassi, and Rook spent the night together again, and Skylar's sex move came into play - he asked Cassi her greatest fear, which was "being forgotten." Cassi also asked Skylar something about Briar, and Skylar wound up using unresolved trauma and giving Rook and Briar the blamed condition.

Omar, Dora, and Genesis also spent the night together (which turned out to be really unpleasant news, later), and Briar hooked up with Austin.

Next morning, most of them headed to school, except that Briar and Omar went out to the winery to collect some grapevines. They parked near the fork, and Omar pointed Briar to a patch of wild grapevines, away from the woods. He said it would be safer there, across the road, away from the pits, and besides, who knows where the monster was?

Meanwhile, at school, Cassi noted the secretary, assistant principal, and several cops have a meeting. She called Skylar and told her to check in, and she used dissipate to go through the wall and listen.

Skylar learned that Principal Miles was missing. His car was found at the winery, but he was gone. Also, Omar, the son of the folks who own the winery, was absent. Where was he? Of course, the characters knew the truth - the monster had killed him. Cassi called Omar and let him know that people were looking for him, then went into the office (she had a meeting today with Principal Miles), but the secretary, now out of the meeting, didn't want to tell her anything. She manipulated an NPC to find out more, and learned that no one knew where Miles was, but everyone was very concerned, and would Cassi please keep an ear out amongst the students? She agreed, and went to class.

Omar, meanwhile, left Briar to cut grapevines and went up the hill to check in with his family. He called her later, saying that he wouldn't be able to come back, but he'd see her later.

That morning, Dora went to her sanctum in the nurse's office and used the watching hex with the notebook page she'd taken from the basement. She saw through the monster's eyes...and it was watching Briar cutting grape vines. Dora quickly texted Briar, but got no response.

But Briar was fine. She came in about lunchtime and met the other students. Dora was sitting with them, rather than her Mexican friends, and there were some whispers from her usual table. She turned around and told them off in Spanish (shutting them down), but picked up the gringa condition for her trouble.

The characters talked over what they knew so far, and decided to go to the library so that Briar could hit the books. They decided, after doing so, that they should wait until school was out, and then head out to the winery and search for the monster. That way there would still be daylight, and maybe they could put this to bed before the party tonight (which they'd already sabotaged, but better safe than sorry).

They got out to the winery and into the trees, and found Omar waiting for them. They searched a bit, and then realized that Principal Miles' car was still up the parking lot, which might give Dora a way to spy on it. They found a water bottle, and Dora used watching hex after they got back into the trees.

She saw the group of them.

They charged in the direction she indicated, but wound up at the road, and nothing. And then Skylar tossed his lash of grape vines around Omar, thinking maybe he was the monster. But nothing happened. Rook tried to gaze into the abyss to see what was going on, but failed, and wondered if Austin might be the one. Cassi also gazed into the abyss to see Austin's thoughts...and couldn't.

They were getting ready to tackle Austin, but Briar used manipulate an NPC to trick the monster into revealing itself. The price to do so, though, would have been someone dying, and the player wasn't willing to accept that. Finally, Skylar gazed into the abyss and saw a vision of grapevines erupting up from the ground and encircling everyone except Omar...but the vines looked very different than the ones the characters were carrying.

Skylar and Briar tackled Omar (lashing out physically), and it exploded into its monster form, pushing them back. Rook also lashed out physically, stabbing it with his sword, and it clawed up his leg. Dora, having trusted (and slept with) Omar, held steady, and Genesis, panicking, used ocean's breath to get something useful. I, however, spent a String on her and offered her an experience to use the other form of the Move, where the ocean takes something away. She agreed.

Genesis' hair floated up as if she was underwater. Her eyes went black like a shark's, and the heavens opened. The sudden downpour of rain blinded everyone, and when their vision cleared, the monster was gone.

Skylar was furious with Genesis for ruining their chance to beat the creature. Briar tried to shut him down, but failed. Genesis gazed into the abyss and saw the rains sweeping away Omar's body, but a black mist being expelled from his mouth and being carried up the hill. Cassi gazed into the abyss to read Austin's thoughts again, and found that he was hurt that she'd suspected him, but relieved she was OK.

The characters talked a bit about what to do, and Dora got a phone call. The woman calling said it was the monster, now a waitress at the winery with a particular tattoo on her wrist. She said she would leave the school alone if the characters left her alone, and then said that the police would be there soon. Dora, however, didn't mention this last fact to everyone. This becomes important momentarily.

The characters walked back to the cars, and found Omar's body sticking out from under Cassi's car. They all held steady, and Briar and Dora succeeded (everyone else failed). They argued for a bit more, freaked out a little, and then three cop cars started coming down the road. They quickly stuffed the body the rest of the way under the car, but the cops turned toward them, and all got out. They asked what the kids were doing here, informed them they were trespassing, and one of them reached for Briar's injured arm, but she shut down the cop and picked up the suspicious condition. The cops told the characters to get gone, and Cassi held steady and kept herself together (for the moment). The cops asked if the kids had been drinking, and they all took breathalyzer tests (Skylar's didn't work, but since she wasn't driving they didn't care). Genesis tried to manipulate an NPC and make the cops believe all was well, but they weren't buying it.

They told the characters to get gone, and then they told the cops about the body in the pit, figuring maybe they could use that get the party shut down. The cops didn't immediately believe them, but Rook was insistent, and so the cops told everyone else to get gone (which they did, take Briar's huge car) and Briar and Rook showed the cops the pit.

Those two and three cops went to the pit, which of course was now full of muddy water. The cops took their names down, and sent them back, and stood there trying to work out how they were going to drain this well. Walking back, Rook gazed into the abyss to talk with the Faery King, and asked for help. The Faery King agreed to get rid of the body, but under no circumstances could Rook look at the faeries doing their work. Rook started yelling and got the last cop away, and carried on (manipulating NPCs) long enough for the body to disappear. Unfortunately, he wound up cuff in the cop car.

Briar managed to manipulate an NPC and get the cops to let Rook go, provided he was calm. They got in the car and drove off, no corpses to be seen. And then they all met back at Briar's house.

The others were already there (Austin knew the code to get in), and they'd waited quietly, Austin holding Cassi, until the others got back. They talked about the events of the day, and once Rook got back (refusing to answer any questions about how the body had vanished), they ordered pizza (no meat). Dora called her parents, who were at the party - apparently there was a delay in dinner. The characters accepted that they had done all they could about the party. If they could destroy the monster, they could cure the infected people.

They went to the books again, and learned that this creature was a monster out of Native American legend called the "Black Tamanous." It didn't eat people, it ate cannibals, which explained the cult. The fact that it had been summoned at the Diaz winery indicated that only grapevines from that winery could hurt it, but it was also vulnerable to starvation, if they could bind it. The stuff that they'd used as "grapevine," Austin discovered, was actually manroot. The monster had tricked them.

Austin brought up a question: When had the monster taken Omar? The assumption was that the thing that had contacted the others from the ambulance with Briar had been the Black Tamanous, not Omar, but then why didn't it just kill her? Skylar gazed into the abyss and saw the answer: The monster smearing blood on Briar's lips. She woke, and licked them. Skylar, seeing this, took a bit of grapevine that they'd collected from the vineyard that day and touched it to Briar's hand. Briar tried to hold steady and failed, and an angry red welt sprang up. Briar had been infected.

Since Genesis and Dora had slept with "Omar" the night before, they touched the vine, too, and held steady. But they did it successfully, so no welts, no infection, apparently.

Genesis took a bath and gazed into the abyss to learn about its current form, and saw it in the body of Omar's mother. She picked a grape from the vine, and crushed it into a bottle, mixing in some blood. Then Genesis saw herself at a dinner party. Around the table were the mayor, some local cops, and other powerful Perdido figures. They took a drink of Mrs. Diaz' wine, and remarked on its body. "The governor would like this," one mused.

The characters decided that killing the Black Tamanous was truly their only choice. It's plans were clear - it wanted to spread. "We'll figure it out,"said Cassi. "We still have a few days until Homecoming."

Night's Black Noties

A few lines of blather, first? OK, then. Last time the agents decided they were going to Szeged to extract a man named Imre Szabo, a bookseller that has a copy of a diary that they think might hold some information they need. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Pirates: Quick fight against zombies

Last time, the characters stepped off the boat on to the Island of the River of Death, and were greeted by a shambling horde of zombies.

The fight began!

Blue lobbed a Molotov cocktail into their midst and lit a few up. Raji followed suit, calling up Hellfire. Memphis grabbed her service pistol and started taking shots, while Charlotte drew her sword and sliced a few in half (the top halves kept wriggling, though...ew).

Blaine, figured he might not be a lot of help here, not having a body and all, teleported to where the gem was resting, based on a description from Blue. There, he found a woman wearing the gem in her headdress, flanked by undead mummy-like guards. She told him her name was Zapata.

Zapata commanded the zombies and the undead of the island, but seemed unaware that the zombies had reached the mainland. She agreed to try and rein in her creations and let the characters approach to parley. As they talked, Blaine felt himself growing solid. He actually had to open a door to get out, but the effect faded a moment later.

He returned to the group just as they were mopping up the last of the zombies. He told them about his meeting, and about how the gem had started to make him solid. They discussed options - yanking it away with telekinesis and dropping it into a bucket of purple goo - but Blaine reminded Blue that they'd made a deal with Shore.

Blue said, "I'm not a pirate. I made a deal. But you're a pirate."

Clever girl.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Let's Eat the Oscars!

Yesterday was the Oscars, which is obvious based on the amount of "Ionevencare" posts I'm seeing on Facebook.

But Oscar Night brings, for me, not only an excuse to see a bunch of fairly depressing movies, but also to cook a bunch of really awesome food. To wit, our menu:

  • 12 Years a Slave: Ciderhouse whiskey
  • Her: Mini flatbread pizzas with heirloom tomato sauce
  • Captain Phillips: Lamb shoulder soup
  • Nebraska: Cheesy corn casserole
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: Spinach with Parmesan (it'll make sense, I promise)
  • Dallas Buyers Club: Beer brisket
  • American Hustle: Chicken picatta
  • Gravity: Chocolate frangelico creme anglaise, torched meringues, black sesame gravel
  • Philomena: Guinness chocolate cake

Here's the cookin'. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Aw, scars

Oscars, you see.

The Oscars telecast is tomorrow night, and tonight we are cooking. I, however, am going to consolidate the cooking into one post, and this ain't it (I am presently making heirloom tomato sauce; that's the only bit I'm sayin').

No, this is the post where I actually talk about the movies. The nominees are here, if you want to check it out. Let's see how many I get right, out of nine categories (since I didn't get a chance to see Prisoners or Inside Llewyn Davis so I'm not gonna weigh in Cinematography, not that I ever know how to call that race anyway).

Best Actor: Actually some really good performances this year. We've got Bruce Dern for a kind of overly trusting, drunk man in Nebraska, Leonardo DiCaprio as a drug-addled crooked stockbroker, Matthew McConaughey as a man dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man pressed to slavery in 12 Years a Slave, and Christian Bale as a con man in American Hustle.

So, I think all of these are challenging performances in their own way. I don't think Bale is likely to take it, nor do I think Bruce Dern gets this one. I rather doubt that Leo takes it this year; his performance was good, but the movie could have been "Henry Hill Goes to Wall Street" (though I don't know, Goodfellas was 30 years ago). I think, though, that the strong performances are between McConaughey and Ejiofor, and I think the latter is going to resonate with the Academy more.

I note, too, that McConaughey is playing a real person (well, so is Ejiofor, but not a contemporary one that people still alive knew), and as usual, there are differences. I have the usual response to that: A movie may be "based on true events," but it's never a true depiction, because it is by definition a work of fiction.

My choice & prediction: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Best Supporting Actor: For four of the same movies, we get: Jonah Hill as another drug-addled broker, Bradley Cooper as a violent-tempered Fed, Michael Fassbender as a slave owner, and Jared Leto as a transgender woman. Plus, we get Barkhad Abdi as Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips. Now, I really do like Abdi's performance. I always like it when "bad guys" get nominated, and Abdi does a good job of playing a young man in impossible circumstances just trying to make some money - and who will, in all probability, be punished if he doesn't. Meanwhile, Fassbender, who also plays a bad guy, doesn't imbue that kind of nuance. That isn't to say that he doesn't manage to make the character live and be believable, but I think he's pretty irredeemable.

Cooper did a good job with his performance, but really, I have a hard time separating that performance too much from his role in Silver Linings Playbook - Cooper has a style, and it'd be nice to see him break out of it. Also, Jeremy Renner should have gotten this nomination. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill managed to do exactly that - he broke from the sarcastic, annoying kid he usually plays and embodied the sheer, stupid excess of the 80s in Wolf of Wall Street.

And then there's Jared Leto, who took some fire because they cast a cis man as opposed to an actual transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club. I don't necessarily think that would be a problem - as Leto has pointed out, it isn't like straight people don't play gay and vice versa, but I can't even name a trans*woman acting Hollywood off the top of my head, so maybe that's a point.

Anyway, I don't know which way the Academy is leaning, but I like all of these performances. I think maybe Leto may take it, but I think I'd rather see Hill take it, as unclean as that makes me feel. Definitely a memorable character with a meaty role. Leto would be fine, too, I think.

My prediction: Jared Leto
My choice: Jonah Hill

Best Actress: Amy Adams as a con artist in American Hustle, Cate Blanchett as a woman in the throes of nervous breakdown in Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock as an astronaut in Gravity, Judi Dench as a woman searching for her lost child in Philomena, and Meryl Streep as a drug addict in August: Osage County.

Holy shit, what a boring lineup. I mean, don't get me wrong, all of these ladies are amazing actress, but they're all white women who have been nominated before - or won - before. Hrmph. In years past there's been some variety here, in terms of race or just getting an unknown. Ah, well.

So, I really loved Bullock's performance, but as I said at the time, she should not have won for The Blind Side. It was a bad role and not a great movie, and now that she's in a really good movie, she's not going to get it.

I like most of these performances. I am not crazy about Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. The movie kind of made me want to hit every major character with a pipe, which only The Social Network managed before. Blancett's character was infuriating, drunk, needy, unbalanced, and made lots of excuses for her horrible behavior. And I gotta be honest, the fact that it's a Woody Allen movie doesn't help my enjoyment of it. Meh.

Meanwhile, Meryl Streep had a really amazing performance. Her character was a horrible person, but the story and the acting stayed with me (maybe more Michelle than me, because she recognized the setting better). Amy Adams was good, but Jennifer Lawrence (see below) was better in American Hustle. That leaves Dench and Bullock. So, Bullock really carries the movie, and turns in a really simple, impressive performance. Dench is playing a real person, but she's playing a sweet old lady, and I don't think the challenge is quite on the same level.

As much as I hated the character, I think in terms of performance I gotta go with Streep. And I don't think Adams is going to beat her out, but I honestly have no idea how to call this. I'm reading some buzz and they're saying Blanchett, and ugh.

My choice: Meryl Streep
My prediction: Ugh. Cate Blanchett, I guess

Best Supporting Actress: Yay, Jennifer Lawrence. I really like her. I want to see her do comedy, frankly, because I think she's really funny. But besides her, we get Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave, Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, and June Squibb in Nebraska.

Now, I'm pretty sure we can count out Squibb, because although her performance in Nebraska was fun, it's not nearly challenging or heavy enough to beat the others. I don't think that Roberts or Hawkins really have a shot, though I do want to note that I loved Roberts' performance (I like plays, and August: Osage County started as a play, and it shows). Hawkins' character was less horrible than Blanchett's, but was still a grasping, greedy sort of person, just without all the 1% entitlement. Anyway.

I think this is probably between Nyong'o and Lawrence, and I don't really think it's a contest. Nyong'o had a couple of really amazing, standout scenes in 12 Years a Slave, and while Lawrence did, too, she just won for Silver Linings Playbook.

My choice and prediction: Lupita Nyong'o

Best Animated Film: Well, first, let's ditch The Croods and Despicable Me 2. Both are decent movies, but they don't have nearly the interesting storyline or the craft of the others. Croods starts out as being Eep (Emma Stone)'s movie, and then by the end it's about Nicholas Cage, which is annoying. Despicable Me 2 is mostly about the minions, with a storyline kind of hung on it.

And then we have Ernest & Celestine, a movie about bears and mice, and teeth. I think the animation is fun and the story is cool, and my kids liked it, and there's some interesting commentary, maybe, about international relations and economics for the grown ups. The Wind Rises is Hiyao Miyazaki's love letter to Japanese aviation, and the English dub makes brief mention of some of the horrible shit Japan was doing at the time and includes the theme of aviation being done out of love but used for war. But I think it might be uncomfortable for American voters, especially the other folks who are Academy voters. And besides, the fifth movie... Frozen. OK, look, complain about the interpretation of "The Snow Queen" if you want, but the fact remains that this movie has two sisters as the lead, skewers the "OMG just met my true love!" trope, and ends with both princesses still single. Oh, and Anna's suitor asks to kiss her. Those things are, to me, huge (also the soundtrack is pretty awesome).

My choice and prediction: Frozen

Best Director: The buzz I've heard is for Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, and I'm thinking that's probably accurate. Sure, we've got Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street, but again, it's a lot like Goodfellas, and I don't think he's winning this year. I've hears Alexander Payne getting buzz for Nebraska, but eh. I don't dispute it's skillfully done, but I think up against movies with a hell of lot more going on, I don't think it's got a real shot.

Speaking of which, 12 Years a Slave has a nomination for Steve McQueen, while David O. Russell is nominated (again) for American Hustle. I think this is basically between McQueen and Cuaron, and I would be fine with either. I'm a big fan of Cuaron, so I'm gonna go with him.

My choice and predication: Alfonso Cuaron

Best Adapted Screenplay: As usual, I have not read the things these movies are based on. But here we go. We've got the third movie in the Linklater "Before" series (Before Midnight), the (apparently largely fictionalized) events of the kidnapping of Captain Phillips (Captain Phillips), the story of how Philomena Lee found her son (who actually wound up doing a lot of harm to the American government, from what I've read), the story of a free man pressed into slavery (12 Years a Slave), and of course the memoir of a guy who took a lot of money and used it on hookers and blow (The Wolf of Wall Street).

So, of these, I find 12 Years a Slave the most compelling. I enjoyed Before Midnight, but if you haven't seen the first two it just comes off as two people bitching at each other for two hours. The other movies were good, but 12 Years a Slave is really a pretty unflinching look at a horrible time in our history, without trying to apologize for it or make it seem like wacky fun (which you can argue was happening in Wolf of Wall Street).

My choice and prediction: 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay: Can we please jettison Blue Jasmine right now? Woody Allen's story of a woman suffering a nervous breakdown after her asshole husband blew through a lot of other people's money just doesn't make me happy. Nebraska, likewise, is a good movie and the characters are believable and all, but it's a bunch of people in the Midwest being all Midwesterny. It's a good story, but it doesn't resonate beyond that (at least not with me; Sideways did, for other reasons). American Hustle is nicely complex, a good ensemble piece, and interesting enough that it definitely deserves to be here (which I have a hard time saying about Nebraska). Dallas Buyers Club has some resonance and, like Wolf of Wall Street, has some nice zeitgeist, but I think its strength is the performances.

But then there's Her, which hasn't gotten any nominations I've mentioned before now. But yikes. Now, admittedly, the notion of computers gaining sentience and how we relate to them is interesting to me anyway, but I also like how the movie (much like Lars & the Real Girl, which had a few similar themes) didn't treat the main character like a freak. It showed other folks responded to the OS the same was Joaquin Phoenix' character does, and the result is something that is nuanced and layers and really cool.

Now, that's my choice. But who's going to win? Her is Spike Jonze, who's not exactly unknown to the Academy. I don't think Before Midnight is taking it, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that Nebraska or Dallas Buyers Club will. I think it might be the latter, because it doesn't have 12 Years a Slave to compete with.

My choice: Her
My prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Picture: Hokay. So. Unlike previous years, I don't have anything here that I feel shouldn't have been nominated. Maybe Nebraska (which isn't winning). It's a good movie, though I admit I do sometimes want to add "but so what" to the end of that. But for the rest:

Philomena ain't winning. It's good, but it's hardly groundbreaking.

Captain Phillips ain't winning. It's good, but Tom Hanks has been better, and the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" comes to mind about the ending scene. It still has some tension, but like, this just happened so we know Phillips came out OK (hell, it's still recent enough that I remember Jon Stewart's take on it).

Her isn't winning, which makes me sad, because I think that it's probably the most topical of the movies without actually being based on anything specific. Our dependence and reverence of technology is very much an interesting and important topic, and everything in the movie, from the kind of poly manifesto that pops up to Twombley's fricking job, which requires empathy but not connection, are well worth paying attention to. But I think it's too sci-fi to win, and it certainly isn't beating the front-runners.

The Wolf of Wall Street ain't winning, but I do find it interesting that the movie basically glorifies the lifestyle that Jordan Belfort lived. Apparently in some screenings people cheered when he pulled out the drugs again, and that's very much in keeping with how the movie is filmed - he's interesting when he's high, destructive, and excessive. But the movie also glosses over the people who got hurt, and continue to be hurt, by Wall Street, and frankly I don't think another movie about how greed is good and there are no repercussions for the rich (though of course there aren't) is what we should be rewarding.

Gravity probably isn't winning Best Picture. And that's probably OK. I'm all for genre films getting recognized, but I think that though the visuals were freaking amazing, the characterization wasn't all it could have been and there's no real statement.

American Hustle: A few months ago I'd have called this a frontrunner, but I think it's gotten lost behind 12 Years a Slave. And frankly, as I think about it, I can't really remember anything about it. It's not really a caper flick. It's not really a crime flick. It's a period piece, and it's good, but it's not amazing.

So that leaves Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave. I feel pretty confident that one of these will take it. Dallas Buyers Club might provide a way to feel like they're honoring victims of AIDS without actually making a movie about gay people, while 12 Years a Slave could have been a white guilt movie in the hands of a lesser director. As it is, while Ejiofor's character Solomon Northup doesn't save himself, he stays strong and alive long enough to get a message home, and yes, it's white people that help spring him, but that's kind of the issue - there was no other way it could have ended, at the time. The strength of the film isn't in the message it sends about race, per se, but about the depiction of slavery it grants. It should make people uncomfortable, which I don't think Dallas Buyers Club does, not to nearly the same degree.

And as much as I liked Her, I think I gotta go with that criteria, too.

My choice and prediction: 12 Years a Slave