Kong: Skull Island [2017]

Kong: Skull Island is the kind of film they don’t make anymore: an unabashed pulp tale of spectacle, heroism, exoticism, and a giant frickin’ ape! Except that they still make tonnes of this kind of film; in fact, far, far, too much of it. And I’ve just contributed $16 to that problem. Je ne regrette rien! This is the kind of film that it’s not easy to imagine being taken seriously by a Real Critic ™, and I think the reviews will focus on the aspects of spectacle, especially Kong, and not probe too deeply into the film because it’s a slick lightweight bit of Hollywood mass production. I, conversely, found it a fascinating battleground on various fronts, showing how far some topics have come and how far some topics still have to go. I think too there’s a fundamental problem posed to a film like this, which is primarily about a sense of Awe and Wonder: can it ever succeed as an artistic construct without creating an Other to Exoticise?

If you liked the opening paragraph, there’s more like that with mild spoilers – let’s be honest you know exactly what happens in this film already! – below the line.

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[This was originally posted on Gametime, please post any comments there.]

I was very excited when BubbleGumshoe was announced because it seemed like the first iteration of the game engine that would be about detection first and foremost. What was the last roleplaying game you played that didn’t have a weird factor? Magic, super-powers, faeries, monsters of some kind: the weird is ubiquitous. Each of the iterations of Gumshoe so far has used the investigative chassis to drive some other kind of story, so that Fear Itself is really about survival horror, Esoterrorists is really about existential survival horror, Trail of Cthulhu is really about chthonic survival horror, Night’s Black Agents is really about vampiric survival horror… and BubbleGumshoe is really about surviving the horror of high school. In the formal modular structure of the game engine unspeakable horrors that haunt the nightmares are replaced by that bullying jock from PE 5th period. Investigators don’t bleed, they lose their cool; instead of toting Tommy guns, they remember that dress Ash wore to junior prom, you know, the hideous day-glow-orange number with the frills? When I think back on High School, I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather take my chances with a Shoggoth.

That’s a mostly-glib summary of one of the big design features of the system that’s been under-used in most versions of the game, which is its modularity. Robin Laws deliberately designed it to be a system where different kinds of things could be switched in and out to create a different genre feel within the same basic mechanical framework. But, just like most versions of d20 felt pretty much like Dungeons and Dragons Lite, especially most fantasy versions, most iterations of Gumshoe have felt very similar. I’ve never played Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues, which at least seem like they could offer quite a different experience from the base established by Fear Itself. Night’s Black Agents provides a tonne of useful advice for the GM in terms of structuring events in the game, but Hite’s system adaptations don’t really go that far – “Heat” for example, feels like an afterthought rather than the crucial metric of espionage success that it probably could have been (check out One Last Job for a version of the Heat mechanic that is integral and does ratchet up tension within scenes). BubbleGumshoe really exists to show just how adaptable Laws’ basic modular system can be, because it uses the core mechanics to provide a distinctly different experience at the table that very closely matches my genre expectations.

In summary, the key mechanic of Gumshoe as a system is that it’s about resource expenditure; the most dramatic resource is health and/or sanity, but every game-mechanical action is a decision about whether to spend resource to achieve a goal. This works very well for its original iteration Fear Itself which is pretty much about the characters running out of resources as they’re slaughtered by an unspeakable evil. There is a reasonable element of system mastery required to gauge how much to spend so that you neither running out of efficacy too early nor end the session with a string of failures but points left in the bank. The element of judgement, of careful resource husbandry, has always sat uncomfortably with Gumshoe as a free-wheeling over-the-top action adventure. This mechanic made more sense in genre terms to me in Fear Itself and Night’s Black Agents than in Trail of Cthulhu because in Trail I always feel like the narrative structure is for the characters to gain insight and support over the course of the adventure to the point where the characters confront the Monstrous Other at the height of their powers; in the old Call of Cthulhu you could think of this as exchanging sanity for the capability of dealing with the threat. Since this basic mechanism of the system is to break characters down as the game wends along I can’t quite imagine an iteration of Gumshoe for High Fantasy because it’s a genre that is inherently aspirational. On the other hand, it seems like a perfect fit for the Hard Boiled detective, and I cannot wait to give Cthulhu Confidential a spin. Thinking about whether BubbleGumshoe works as a game is partially about thinking about whether there is a resource that’s expended in the inspiring fiction.

The primary resources that are expended in BubbleGumshoe are “cool” and “relationships”. “Cool” is the analogue of “Stability” in other games, but what’s great about “Cool” is that it has a meaning within the fiction. This means that it is available for story purposes as well as a simple mechanical measure of stress. The leaders of school society have a high “Cool”, which they can then expend to go into grown-up spaces, or in contests for political supremacy within the school hierarchy.  But “Relationships” is where things get really interesting. As kids, the characters don’t have a range of skills and resources that the typically-adult characters have in other games; instead, they have relationships with a network of other children and adults with useful skills. One example given in the book is for someone whose parent is a coroner, which gives the character access to a suite of forensic skills, but at the cost of putting strain on their familial relationship. In terms of processing and following a sequence of clues, this is almost a simple equivalence: the relationship “Mom” instead of the skill “Forensics”. In narrative terms, however, it’s extremely powerful because it transforms a huge range of what would be simple skill checks into story possibilities. “Mom’s” matriarchal beneficence is a far more interesting thing than an abstract points-pool. This integration of the fictional lives of the characters with the mechanical lives of the players is a huge leap forward for the Gumshoe engine, because it becomes almost a self-perpetuating story: using the skills you need in order to solve a particular mystery generates the concomitant melodrama that is the substance of the characters’ lives and will be a substantial part of the activity at the table.

This flow and exchange is something that I think you can see playing out in some of the source fiction. I can’t think of anything like this in The Three Investigators or The Hardy Boys, but Veronica Mars “uses” her friends and family all the time, generating interpersonal melodrama along the way. The key is that the relationships in Veronica Mars are durable and persistent, whereas the kind of generic “contacts” used by the likes of Sam Axe in Burn Notice or the Winchesters in Supernatural are often not even named or featured on screen. Veronica’s relationships are key resources for her, but they are also important to her. System and narrative are in accord.

This makes BubbleGumshoe my favourite implementation of the mechanics, and so I was very keen to give it a whirl with a group that would grok both halves of the equation: the detection, and the melodrama. I found myself in Auckland recently and turned to a motley crew with, as the filth might say, “form” in the genres.

Despite knowing the group very well for a long time I started the session in a low-key way. I think we’re quite used to turning up to one-shot games and diving straight into the action, but the human brain, any human system really, needs time to acclimate to its new task and orient itself. We started with a quite casual discussion on teen detectives, and the discussion tended towards trying to think about groups of detectives. One fairly defining trait of most detective literature is the singularity of the detective – Veronica Mars, Hercule Poirot, Mike Hammer, and virtually any other detective you can think of, have friends and resources but professionally they’re very isolated. Even groups like the Three Investigators or the gang in Scooby Doo tends to split the actual detection a little unevenly. The discussion managed to avoid going to the obvious wells for groups, – Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric, or Decker/Rigger/Street Sam/Mage, Ventru/Tremere/Toreador/etc etc.

The discussion very naturally pointed us all toward one of the school institutions which draws together a variety of different “types” – the school musical. I wish I could claim credit, but it was our youngest player who provided the real vision and impetus for the solution. The overt thread linking the characters’ lives was the school production of Hamilton. Lucretia in a single stroke of genius provided an overarching connection, a cast of characters (haha), and an obvious procedural target for the necessary maleficence. The different characters easily assumed different roles in the production, and I had the easiest part to play as the semi-disinterested teacher who hadn’t quite gotten around to reading the script and hence left the important decisions where it belongs, in the hands of the players.

Cobbling together a basic mystery was very simple. The trouble in writing mysteries for roleplaying games is usually in devising a sequence of clever, but not too clever, clues in a chain. The basic difficulty with Gumshoe has always been the difficulty of actually devising a sensible set of clues; it’s insightful approach of “no clue left undiscovered” can still easily have the GM devise a mystery impossible to solve. You see that all the time in the so-called Fair Play Mysteries from the Golden Period, where sometimes the solution was so ingenious that “only a half-wit could see it”. However, in BubbleGumShoe the bulk of the information is likely to be encoded in GMCs, and it’s a matter of social leverage to get the information required, allowing a healthy dose of useful interpretation to be included if needed. I had encouraged the players to leave unallocated a certain proportion of their points for buying relationships with GMCs in case they needed to create someone useful on the fly.

Once things got going, the game functioned very much like I thought it would from my reading. In particular, by encoding the clues in GMCs, the pursuit of more information was dynamic and entertaining rather than a series of static descriptive scenes: obtaining information from a GMC naturally means engaging them in conversation, whereas searching another crime scene for fingerprints is effectively passive reception of information. I had worried that “expending” relationship points to convince GMCs to do things against their overt best interests might feel too mechanical, but instead it added some mechanical heft to bolster the role-played experience. I can easily imagine developing this basic mechanism into a quite good relationship economy – you assist the helpless geek in recovering the lucky charm stolen by the jocks and are hence rewarded with a relationship point to be expended when you need that computer hacked, or, as probably, vice versa. By building the basic currency of the mystery into the basic activity of roleplaying a character you get a natural synergy.

In the end, the game delivered precisely the experience I’d hoped for. It was a slightly unfair test, in that I think the group I gathered most probably could have had a great time playing something truly unwieldy, but I think everyone left the game having had a good time and open to playing more. Even with the best intentions and best groups, that’s far from always the case. Unequivocally, this was the best outing that I’ve had for any variant of the basic Gumshoe game engine.

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And the Academy Award goes to…

As I wrote at the outset of these posts, the point of the Academy Awards is to celebrate achievement. Even though I don’t think that the best horse is always even in each of the categories, I’ve seen films that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise gone to see because they were Oscar-nominated. Would Moonlight or Fences have crossed my radar otherwise? Very doubtful. To that end, I don’t mind too much that some billion-dollar monsters have missed out on awards despite being great: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a film I’ve watched a good few times now and I think it is as good or better than any of the films nominated in 2015, which was a strong year.

Just so I can be proven wrong, here are my picks for all the non-technical categories, and my hope is that if you haven’t seen these films, this will help get you to.

Actor in a Leading Role will be won by Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea, unless his private controversies derail his campaign.

Actor in a Supporting Role should be won by Mahershala Ali for Moonlight, but will go to sentimental favourite Jeff Bridges for growling his way through Hell or High Water. Guy Pearce should have been nominated, and won, for his role in Brimstone.

Actress in a Leading Role could theoretically go any which way, but Emma Stone will win for La La Land; hers is the only performance I’ve actually seen, and it didn’t strike me at the time as a Best Actress worthy outing. The award should go to Viola Davis for Fences, but as per usual the Academy hasn’t picked the right people for the right categories. Kate Beckinsale also should be in the nomination mix for Love and Friendship, but Dakota Fanning from Brimstone was the Best Actress in a Leading Role that I saw last year.

Actress in a Supporting Role is packed with great performances that I have seen. Assuming Viola Davis won for her genuinely leading role in Fences this award should go to Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures.

Animated Feature Film is emphatically Kubo and the Two Strings. Kubo deserved to beat it, but Your Name should have been in the conversation.

Cinematography is another very strong category, and I’d be happy with anyone winning except Moonlight which had a half-dozen amazing scenic shots in between some pretty conventional lensing. The Academy will give it to La La Land to help with their record-breaking sweep of the awards. It was, however, the cinematography of Goldstone that nudged it ahead of its rivals for my favourite film from TIFF2016, and I think that should have been in the mix more.

Costume Design will go to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Directing will be won by Damien Chazelle as part of La La Land‘s sweep.

Best Picture will be La La Land, virtually anointed at this point.

Production Design should go to Hail, Caesar! for its perfect recreation in miniature of Hollywood’s Golden Age. When they don’t make films like that anymore, the correct answer is Hail, Caesar!

Writing (Adapted Screenplay) should go to Arrival, though that is stretching the concept of adaptation, as it purportedly has little to do with the original short story.

Writing (Original Screenplay) will be part of La La Land‘s sweep.

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Best Picture Oscar: La La Land [2016]

An aspiring actress meets an aspiring jazz musician and through the magic of song and dance they have a romance.

La La Land puts its cards on the table right there in the opening sequence, which is a big song-and-dance number staged on a Los Angeles freeway. A simple initiating melody intimately hummed in a jammed car is exploded into a full orchestral piece and a cast of dozens of dancers. I’m no aficionado of musical theatre or cinema – where’re the trench coats and rain? – but to my limited palette it was as spectacular and catchy as any number since the Ziegfeld Follies [1945]. From out of that milieu we catch two threads, Mia [Emma Stone] and Sebastian [Ryan Gosling], each caught up in their own troubles and dreams. Each is a recognisable aspirant archetype charmingly brought to life by a script with one eye on the cliche and one beyond and an actor with charisma to spare. Their romance plays out in the perfectly conventional way – chance meetings, a mutual recognition of a spark of interest. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who may not have seen it, but about half way through the film, with the cliches established, it begins to play with variations on those themes that preserve the magic while deepening the characters and their relationship far beyond expectations.

That’s not to say the film isn’t without limitations – I won’t go so far as imperfections exactly. It’s focus on its two leads makes them virtually the entire world of the film, straight-jacketing it into a white middle-class cis-gendered heteronormative love scenario. The film passes the Bechdel test, but lots of people argue that Mia is under-written compared to Sebastian. It’s use of musical conventions from the 1950s is both a great strength and a real potential barrier for those without any exposure to the base genre. The music isn’t necessarily all that compelling or successful either, one friend pointed out to me the weakness of the Audition song which is the hinge of the 3rd act. For all that it’s more emotionally real than almost all of its genre peers, it’s nevertheless still an obvious wish-fulfilment story that doesn’t speak to the kinds of lived experiences that give dramatic heft to most of its competitors for the top spot.

I didn’t see La La Land at TIFF last year because it was impossible to get tickets to it. It was the first film I saw in 2017, in a packed screening at Lighthouse Cuba. I’ve been to see 9 films in the cinema since then, and every time I’ve been queuing for tickets to something I’ve looked at the screening times and been seriously tempted to ditch my intended new experience to see this again. Because of the timing, it didn’t make my top-5 for 2016, but if it isn’t amongst the top picks for 2017 when December rolls around this year, I’ll be pretty surprised – delighted that 5 films came out that were better than this, but surprised. Despite its limitations, this is the best film of those nominated, and deserves to win. Whether I’d pick it over, say, Brimstone or Eye in the Sky is a quandary I luckily don’t have.

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Best Picture Oscar: Arrival [2016]

Aliens arrive, and linguist Louise Banks is sent to find out how to communicate with them. Interwoven with that, from the first scene, is her remembering the tragic life of her daughter, who died young.

This is breathtaking science fiction on every level. It is powered by a genuinely interesting Big Idea, has amazing production design, the dialogue is great and intelligent – and it never forgets that its a film about people. In fact, there is a near-perfect synthesis between the inner emotional development of the characters and the overt plot of learning to speak to the aliens. The film dodges most of the typical dumb pratfalls that other alien-arrival films like The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951 & 2008] trip into. The film never lets itself get distracted either, showing just enough scenes away from the immediate characters of interest to keep the sense that there is a world, without becoming unfocused or bloated. Amy Adams delivers a really subtle and amazing performance in the lead, and even Jeremy Renner somehow isn’t a total vacuum of interest in this film – his part is kept mercifully contained.

I struggle to find a rational and compelling argument for why this film didn’t make my list of the best films of 2016. I think that while it was fascinating, it was also emotionally muted for me. I empathised with the characters and their struggles, but I never found the love story interesting, never felt the triumph of success, didn’t feel tears welling up at the story of the poor innocent child shown dying in flashback. It was somehow too cerebral, too distant. It’s an amazing production, but without an emotionally-compelling centre, I’ve never felt a desire to re-watch it. I respect it more than I love it.

Recently the Academy has been nominating genre and especially science fiction outings with more frequency – last year we had the Martian, and two years before that Gravity – but no Science Fiction film has ever won. I think the reason is that for all that these films use and explore character, they’re always primarily about their motivating Big Idea, rather than about human nature directly. Arrival is better than almost all SF in that regard, but its human characters are still secondary to its idea, and so for all that it’s fascinating, it’s not about us, and therefore won’t and shouldn’t win.

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Best Picture Oscar: Hidden Figures [2016]

Hidden Figures is the heart-warming tale of three gifted African American women who work for NASA, and their contributions to the early stages of the space race. It shows their contribution to the first crucial attempt to get an American astronaut into space.

This is the most overtly political film from the Best Picture nominees, because in addition to operating as a piece of entertainment, it operates as a statement of worth for a whole segment of the population by exposing important contributions from women who are wholly unknown precisely because they are black women rather than white men. As a scientist friend of mine also pointed out, this film also attacks the traditional idea of the lone wolf scientific genius off in isolation in favour of a much more realistic collaborative environment where individual credit is a largely meaningless concept. The resultant package is also very fine entertainment: characters you like, doing things that are interesting, with high production values and a cracking pace. The dialogue is sometimes a little obvious, but the actresses are strong enough to get it to work almost all the time.

The big problem with this film is that it’s a paint-by-numbers film about overcoming a challenge, with absolutely rote story beats and subplots. Painting black instead of white still leaves a fundamentally worn-out structure to support the story. It’s therefore a film with absolutely no surprises and no tension that amiably wombles to the perfectly predictable conclusion. Granted that it’s documenting a historical event with well known broad parameters, it still seems impossible that this was the most energetic storytelling mode available. I do almost wonder whether that is a deliberate strategy: by keeping the structure very familiar it makes the shocking and controversial aspect of having black women as the subject easy for the audience to accept – an argument that I think would be borderline contemptuous of both the audience and the subjects of the film.

I think this film has a realistic chance of winning the Academy Award – 25%, say. While this wasn’t the best film over the past year, I would be pretty content with it as a winner because of its basic goodness. If the purpose of Art ™ is to change the world for the better, this is the Best Picture nominee with the best shot at doing that.

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Best Picture Oscar: Fences [2016]

Troy Maxson is a working class man just about to hit his declining years. He is gripped by a sense of discontentment that’s mirrored by each member of his family. As an absolute patriarch he clashes with his family over different perspectives, often sublimated into exaggerated parables and fables. Eventually he reaches a crisis moment, precipitating changes in everyone’s lives.

This film exists to showcase acting talent, living or dying on the ability of the key performers to engender the sympathy and empathy of the audience. It’s emotionally complex and dialogue heavy, betraying its origin as a stage play in virtually every shot. The film allows all its characters to eloquently advocate for their choices and their positions, declining to offer a judgement on any of the decisions they make – there are no bad or good decisions, just differing magnitudes of changes. Taken as a package, that makes the characters portrayed feel as real as cinema can offer, despite the perfection of their speech.  The actors take full advantage of this; Viola Davis in particular displays a supremely well-judged performance that includes both the grandstanding moments from the trailer and the most delicate conveyance of emotion that must be suppressed.

The trade off for this powerful focus on the family unit inside the family home is that the film feels myopic. It’s a film where the characters tell us an awful lot about themselves, without finding the time or space to show us. As a cinematic experience, it feels like too literal a translation, bringing the limitations of the stage into the new medium; with only a tiny handful of interjections from a voice-over narrator, the film could work as an audio-play perfectly well. It’s not quite from the Clint Eastwood school of pointing a camera at the actors and hoping for the best, but Denzel Washington displays no real directorial flair. I understand that he brought most of the Broadway cast with him to the film, in which case you’d almost have to argue that because the strength of this film is the performances, that Broadway director deserves the lion’s share of the credit, for getting those performances in the first place.

For all that it felt limited, it also felt perfectly confident and assured in what it was doing. The characters are compelling, fascinating even, and I was gripped throughout, never really anticipating the next development. I could definitely see myself re-watching this and trying to unpack some of the dense socio-political commentary. While this yet another film grappling with masculinity at the expense of fully exploring the problems of the sole woman in the film, it’s sophisticated perspective on a kind of masculinity that is under-represented in films: there aren’t too many major releases out about black working class men in the 1950s. I liked this film a lot, just perhaps not enough to award it the Best Picture Academy Award.

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