Monday 27 January 2020

Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market science fiction/fantasy/horror film picks of 2019

A fleck of brilliance amid the flotsam: time to give this melodramatic superhero and sci-fi twaddle a rest

Considering the highest-grossing (US) films of 2019, the decade closes on a somewhat disappointing note. The top ten earners (seven of them distributed by Disney) include the usual suspects: series continuations, comic-book inspired movies (only four in the top ten versus five last year), and cartoons transformed into live action. Among those are the CGI-saturated films that take themselves much too seriously. Not that CGI is a bad thing. However, no matter how riveting the music and how much is at stake, we’re talking about films populated by characters who wear tight outfits, masks, and capes. Let’s lighten up and scale down.

What it all points to, sadly, is a lack of originality and an overreliance on techniques that sacrifice character for visual bravado.

Nevertheless, I can’t harp on these moneymakers too much – my two favorite SF/F/H films of last year happen to be among the top ten earners. And one of them proves that just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again brilliantly.

Though the selections below are quite different in their genre and content, they happen to be united by a common theme: a character or characters in hiding… from a predator, from a family, from a conflict… even from themselves. And interestingly, in not one of these films is the fate of the world at stake.

Another litmus test for choosing my top five: if someone were to hit the pause button at any point in the movie, how much would I look forward to resuming play?

#5: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Angelina Jolie returns as the unjustifiably maligned antihero whose cold exterior is by no means a reflection of her true character. This dark fairy tale sequel, complete with vivid fantasy settings and their curious inhabitants, explores the delicate balance between the manmade and natural worlds. Both Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer (as the self-assured and conniving Queen Ingrith) pull off commendable performances. Full review.

#4: Crawl
Yes, the alligators-on-steroids predators in this creature feature are unrealistically aggressive, but that doesn’t prevent Crawl from being an ultra-tense film. Haley, a member of the University of Florida Gators (ha ha) swim team, and her father Dave hide in the flooded crawlspace under their disbanded family’s former Florida home. The film’s theme has to do with overcoming the mental limitations that individuals place on themselves. Another theme is pain… really bad pain. Full review.

#3: Ready or Not
In this comedy-horror, a wealthy family attempts to hunt down a bride (on her wedding night nonetheless) in a deadly game of hide-and-seek. It combines the eccentric characters and mansion setting of Clue with the gore of a slasher flick. Samara Weaving’s nuanced performance deviates from the Rambo-in-a-dress characterization that the film’s artwork leads you to expect. Look for Weaving’s laugh that resembles a goat bleating and for the scene in which the family butler gets a little too enthusiastic about Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Full review.

#2: Jumanji: The Next Level
A true embodiment of the “go big or go home” mentality, Jumanji: The Next Level offers something for the whole family: humour, valid CGI-heavy adventure, the irresistible Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart duo, and even messages about friendship and aging. The sequel has all the charm of its predecessor, but it lives up to its name (The Next Level) by mixing up the video game avatars and the players who control them. I seriously considered making this my number one SF/F/H film of the year. One could argue that technically, my number one film doesn’t fit into the SF/F/H categorization—it could be labeled a drama. If that’s the case, then consider Jumanji: The Next Level number one. Full review.

#1: Joker
Just when I was about to throw in the towel with comic book-inspired movies, Joaquin Phoenix changed the game with a masterful performance as Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill, economically-disadvantaged waif who becomes one of recent history’s most extravagant villains. Director Todd Phillips detours from the CGI elements that have swamped recent comic book films and instead focuses on one character’s descent into lawlessness. One never knows what the gaunt Arthur will do: break into laughter at the wrong time, climb into a refrigerator, or commit murder. Full review.—Douglas J. Ogurek 

See Douglas’s top five SF/F/H picks from 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

Thursday 9 January 2020

Lone Wolf 24: Rune War | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 24: Rune War (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, December 2019, ISBN 9781916268005

In addition to completing the late Joe Dever’s vision of a thirty-two book cycle comprising four different series, Holmgard Press is intent on completing the Collector’s Edition release initially begun by Mongoose Publishing in 2010 (for details, see my review of Lone Wolf 21: The Voyage of the Moonstone). I must confess that for a combination of reasons (and despite the user-friendly formatting of Project Aon), I had never actually played books 24 to 26, in consequence of which I was very pleased to see Lone Wolf 24: Rune War released at the end of 2019.  The game begins with True Friend (my Kai Grand Master of randomly-generated-name-fame) returning to the Kai Monastery from his successful mission in the Kingdom of Siyen (Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero) to be invited to a private audience with Lone Wolf.  The evil Lord Vandyan has usurped the throne of the former Principality of Eldenora and invaded the neighbouring countries of Delden, Magador, and Salony in Northern Magnamund.  Vandyan’s imperial ambitions are currently stalled in Lyris, where he is besieging Varetta (the Stornlands setting of Lone Wolf 6: The Kingdoms of Terror) with his Vorka horde.  The Vorka are Agarashi (spawn of Agarash the Damned, an archdemon that serves at the right hand of the God of Darkness) and were believed extinct before their appearance in Vandyan’s army.  The Vorka horde is being continually replenished from Duadon, the capital of Eldenora, where it appears that the creatures are being created by means of the Runes of Agarash. While Lone Wolf leads a crusade of New Order Kai, allies, and mercenaries to raise the siege of Varetta, True Friend is tasked with infiltrating Skull-Tor, Duadon’s fortress, to destroy the runes and cut off the supply of Vorka at its source.  This mission brief suggests a game of at least three parts: a wilderness adventure beginning with a river journey and ending in a forest, an urban exploration of the streets of Duadon, and finally a dungeon crawl in the fortress.

The game begins well, with immediate action, although anyone who has played previous Lone Wolf games will not find the journey to Hulsta’s cooperage in Duadon too onerous (with the possible exception of the Grochod Forest section). The method of entry selected for Skull-Tor is the underground tunnels constructed in case of the need for escape by the original occupant. The plan is soon scuppered, however, and the infiltration (in my gameplay) was by means of the underground river, habitat to some very nasty local fauna. Once inside Skull-Tor, True Friend discovers the full extent of Vanyan’s megalomania, a three-step strategy for world domination, the first two steps of which have already been set in motion. This is followed by an exciting and multi-staged climax that includes a skirmish with the deadly Zorkaan the Soultaker. The game is in fact in four parts: a wilderness adventure to reach Duadon, an urban exploration on and below the streets of Duadon, a dungeon crawl in Skull-Tor, and then a two-stage escape from stronghold and city. As is so often the case, the escape is a little anticlimactic, becoming progressively easier from the stronghold to the city to the countryside. Rune War nonetheless has a gripping – shocking, even – ending, which I shall reveal seeing as Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf has been available in one form or another since 1997. After being extracted by Banedon, Guildmaster of the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star, in his skyship, True Friend returns to the Kai Monastery to receive the news that Lone Wolf, still at the head of the crusade, has been abducted by a black shadow that fell from the sky on the outskirts of Ruanon and is thought to be Zorkaan the Soultaker. Lone Wolf’s soul has, literally, been taken and True Friend’s next mission will be to bring it back.

I have little to say about the mechanics of play – as a game, Rune War is highly enjoyable, albeit not particularly demanding, and the Grand Master Discipline of Kai-screen is very useful (though not essential). As with all the other Collector’s Editions, there is a bonus adventure, “The Traitor’s Reward”, which is written by Gavyn F. Duthie. The player takes on the persona of Kalen of Salony, a Stornlander sellsword leading a band of mercenaries in service of the Salonese. My verdict is that the game is something of a mixed bag. On the upside, the adventure makes a nice counterpoint to the main feature and the idea of beginning with Kalen and his whole band is original. “The Traitor’s Reward” is also satisfyingly long for a bonus adventure (270 sections as opposed to the 350 of the feature). On the downside, there is a noticeable difference in authorial quality between the two adventures, particularly with respect to the descriptions (some of which are a little unclear) and turns of phrase (which are occasionally awkward) in the bonus adventure. More importantly, the attempt to turn the skills of a veteran mercenary into Kai-like special abilities falls flat and detracts from the internal logic of the cycle – the Kai are unique precisely in virtue of their exceptional skills and (as they progress) supra-human abilities, which are achieved by the combination of dedication, devotion, and divine intervention. Having said that, other players may well not be as distracted as I was by this question and will probably enjoy the bonus adventure much more than I did. Not only have I still not played books 25 and 26, but 25, 26, and 28 are the only three missing from my collection of various editions of the rest of the thirty books… so I really do hope Holmgard Press is here to stay.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight's Hero | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, April 2019, ISBN 9781527237728

Now that I’m cautiously confident Holmgard Press is here to stay – to see the Lone Wolf series through to its conclusion, at least – I’ve been spending more time on the website at On the About page there is a history of the series by the renowned Jonathan Green, author of YOU Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks (parts 1 and 2, published in 2014 and 2017 respectively). I was struck by how much more upbeat it was than my own history of the series, with which I began my review of Lone Wolf 21: The Voyage of the Moonstone in 2016 (and updated in my review of Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai in 2017). I hope my intention to be supportive of the late Joe Dever and my admiration for the innovative ways in which he overcame the obstacles presented by publishers were both clear, but I suppose Green’s history is written for a different purpose (promoting the series) to mine (providing some sort of critical appreciation). I nonetheless thought it would be interesting to compare the two, by which I mean fill in the copious gaps in my account using Green.

Green’s history begins before mine, in 1977, with a twenty-one-year-old Dever switching from tabletop wargaming to role-playing gaming, creating the world of Magnamund as a campaign setting for his Dungeons & Dragons game. As has been well-publicised, Dever became the first British winner of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Championship of America in 1982. Less well-publicised is the fact that he received a job offer from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (the creators of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks) at Games Workshop. Interestingly, given my commentary on his business acumen, Dever decided that Lone Wolf would reach a wider audience as a gamebook on the basis that there were more bookshops than game stores. Three decades later, there are precious few bookstores left, but more importantly from a financial point of view, the gamebook has been replaced by videogames in a way that role-playing games haven’t (not yet, anyway). By this time, however, Dever had long switched to the online platform offered by Project Aon, in a sense pioneering what we would now called Open Access Publishing. Hutchinson, which is now part of Penguin Random House, commissioned four books from Dever and the first two were published in 1984, with Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark selling into six figures in the first month.

Dever’s original plan was a series of twenty books – what would subsequently become the Kai, Magnakai, and Grand Master series – where players adopted the persona of Kor-Skarn (Lone Wolf) throughout. Green mentions the change of illustrators in 1987 and that Brian Williams illustrated the series until his death in 2010. Following the publication of all twenty books, Dever set to work on the New Order series, which he envisaged as consisting of twelve books following the adventures of a new protagonist (reproducing the Kai and Magnakai series, which are actually two parts of a single campaign in gaming terms or a single narrative in literary ones). Green mentions Red Fox cancelling the series in 1998 and concurs with my assessment about the wisdom of allowing Project Aon to distribute the books online (again, looking back, these were early ebooks). At the same time as Dever was having problems with Mongoose Publishing (who had taken over from Red Fox in 2007), he began publishing maps of Magnamund, drawn by Francesco Mattioli. Apparently Dever was prevented from setting up Holmgard Press before 2016 because of the need to wait for the rights to revert to him and, as I mentioned in my review of Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep, the reversion came almost too late, with Dever dying in November of that year. His son, Ben, who has taken over Holmgard Press and the completion of the series, is also a writer – of scripts and screenplays – which is why the series is co-written with Vincent Lazzari, who had been assisting Dever with the Lone Wolf Role Playing Game (by Mongoose) since 2010.

Having integrated my history with Green’s, I’ll pick up where I left off in Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki, which concluded with True Friend (my Kai Grand Master of randomly-generated-name-fame) completing the mission given to him by Lone Wolf at the beginning of the previous gamebook, returning the Moonstone (one of the greatest artifacts of Magnamund) to its Shianti creators on the distant Isle of Lorn. After enjoying their thanks and hospitality, True Friend returns to the Port of Suhn and book 23 begins with him receiving a message from Lone Wolf in the Dessi consulate, courtesy of a magical seeing stone, about an emergency in the nearby Kingdom of Siyen. King Oridon of Siyen has been assassinated and the throne of the kingdom will shortly be claimed by Baron Sadanzo, an evil sorcerer. True Friend is the closest Kai Master to hand and his mission is to find the heir, Prince Karvas (who has been living in exile on the Isle of Sheasu for a decade), and convince him to return to the land of his birth within fifty days – before Harvestmas Day – after which his claim will be forfeit according to the Constitution of Siyen. Lone Wolf has despatched Wizard Acraban of the Magicians’ Guild of Toran to assist and True Friend must rendezvous with him in the city of Mydnight in Sheasu in twenty days.

The game is divided into three parts, which become longer, more exciting, and more difficult to play as one progresses. The narrative takes the form of a race against time, to reach Seroa, the capital of Siyen, before noon on Harvestmas Day. In the first part, which is relatively undemanding, travel is by ship – sailing ship to the Island of Sheasu and then skyship from Sheasu to Seroa – but the journey is interrupted when the skyship crash-lands in the Great Forest of Kelderwood. Part two is a journey on foot to the city of Bakhasa, ruled by the dreaded Autarch Sejanoz (who will play a significant role later on in the New Order Series), ending with the escape of True Friend and Karvas from the city on horseback. The final chapter begins with the flight from Bakhasa, involves a substantial amount of time in the saddle, and ends – all being well – with Karvas crowned King and True Friend invested as a Knight of Siyen. What works particularly well in this race against time plot, with True Friend and Karvas the target of several pursuits along the way, is that the pace of the game never flags, in addition to which one is never sure of what will come next, maintaining the sense of suspense throughout. One of the features of the Lone Wolf series that has elevated it above its many competitors (in the eighties at least) is the lack of linearity of the narratives and this lack is especially evident here, where – as the player – all one can be sure of is that the conclusion will be in Seroa. How one gets there – the route, the means, and the obstacles – is all entirely up for grabs.

The mechanics of the game work very well. I found only one (typographical) error: illustration XVII matches section 295, not section 294 (as the gamebook states), which caused little confusion as the sections are right next to one another. There is only one section where I feel compelled to offer walkthrough-type advice. When you arrive at the South Gate of Seroa (and I’m not sure whether there are any other options) you must enter the city inconspicuously, i.e. risk the delay of the long queue, otherwise you will lose the opportunity to separate Baron Sadanzo from his Gem of Naar, which makes him indestructible for a lowly Kai Grand Sentinel. I also found the possession and mastery of a bow particularly useful in this adventure (which is not always the case in the series). As with all the other Collector’s Editions, there is a bonus adventure: “Lost in the Kelderwastes”, written by Florent Haro and Vincent Lazarri. The player adopts the persona of Acraban, left with his downed skyship Starstrider in the Great Kelderwood Forest, and involves the hunt for a lost patrol of his crewmen. As regular readers of my Lone Wolf reviews will recognise, the adventure meets both of my criteria for a bonus game: the plot dovetails neatly with the main adventure (literally beginning where True Friend left Acraban) and provides a contrast of player character, a magic-user as opposed to a ranger to use Advanced Dungeons & Dragons terminology. The adventure is short (150 sections as opposed to the 350 of the main adventure), but original, interesting, and well worth playing.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Jumanji: The Next Level | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Same game, new charms: sequel swaps roles to keep the play engrossing.

A quirky quartet of avatars. A depthless villain. Angry beasts. Perilous settings. All the elements that made Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) so endearing have returned in Jumanji: The Next Level, once again directed by Jake Kasdan. But this time, the avatars have been endowed with new strengths and weaknesses, commandeered by new players, thrust into new settings, and faced with new threats both internal and external.

Spencer and Martha, who ignited their relationship in the first film, have gone to separate colleges. Their relationship has kind of sputtered out due to reasons that are “complicated”, according to Spencer. Moreover, Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and former restaurant partner Milo (Danny Glover) have had a falling out.

After a despondent Spencer allows himself to once again get sucked into the video game world of Jumanji, his three previous co-adventurers go after him, but inadvertently draw Eddie and Milo into the game. This time, the surface goal is to retrieve the Falcon Jewel held by the bearded savage Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann). As in the previous film, the circumstances present an opportunity to rekindle relationships and burn (but not fall off) bridges… all within the action-packed world of Jumanji.

Dwayne Johnson, as the near-flawless archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone, impressively channels Grandpa Eddie with his New York accent, lack of introspection, and dumbfounded expressions. Cartographer Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black) represents Fridge, a college football player much different than Oberon’s previous role as conceited teen Bethany. Dancefighter and “killer of men” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) is the only avatar to retain her original player (Martha). The biggest (and perhaps most entertaining) avatar shift is Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Hart subdues his formerly exuberant and fast-talking performance as Fridge to mimic Milo, whose obliviousness to imminent danger and meandering delivery annoy other adventurers. Take, for instance, a scene in which the zoologist calmly shares facts about ostriches as one dashes toward the group.

Newcomer Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina) fits right in with the other off-kilter player/avatar matchups. How delightfully jarring it is to see this five-foot one-inch woman with an Asian ethnicity impersonate a player so dissimilar to her.

Like its predecessor, the sequel’s biggest strength is that it uses the guise of a one-dimensional action movie to explore the emotional complexities of love, friendship, and even growing old.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Read Douglas’s review of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017).

Monday 6 January 2020

The Rise of Skywalker | review by Rafe McGregor

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, by J.J. Abrams (Walt Disney Studios) 

A conclusion four decades in the making. 

The release of the final instalment of the Skywalker Saga over Christmas in the UK provided me with the first opportunity to visit my fellow film nerd and former employer since moving house, in consequence of which I was very much looking forward to the whole day. The pleasant sense of anticipation offset a phenomenon that I’ve never experienced before in forty years of watching Star Wars: despite having seen both The Force Awakens (released in 2015 and directed by J.J. Abrams) and The Last Jedi (released in 2017 and directed by Rian Johnson) on the big screen, I had no recollection of where the narrative of the Sequel Trilogy had paused when the latter concluded. To make matters worse, I’d confused what little I did recall with Solo: A Star Wars Story (released in 2018 and directed by Ron Howard), which I’d also seen on the big screen (and thoroughly enjoyed) in the interim. This literal loss of plot on my part was unprecedented – unthinkable in not only the Original Trilogy so adored by my generation but even the Prequel Trilogy that proved such a palpable disappointment to so many of us. Even in The Phantom Menace (released in 1999 and directed by George Lucas) at its silliest and most spurious, there was always a clear sense of the narrative direction – working towards the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, the destruction of the Jedi, and the beginning of A New Hope (released in 1977 and also directed by George Lucas).

In my review of The Last Jedi, I characterised Johnson as having tread a fine line between revisiting and rebooting, following Abrams in The Force Awakens by reproducing the plot, characters, and setting of the Original Trilogy. Looking back over the full saga, the overarching narrative seems to move in a series of circular cycles. The Jedi, given their military prowess, prescient wisdom, and communion with the Force, have a perverse predilection for getting wiped out (in George Lucas’ 2005 Revenge of the Sith and the interim between the Original and Sequel Trilogies) and the Empire keeps bouncing back no matter how many devastating defeats it suffers (in George Lucas’s 2002 Attack of the Clones and Richard Marquand’s 1983 Return of the Jedi). The problem with this is that if the Skywalker Saga ends – as the title of the final episode suggests – with the rise of the Jedi (for at least the third time) and/or the defeat of the First Order (AKA deep state Republic, Empire, Last Order), then it seems unlikely that this status quo will last for longer than a few decades before the next cycle of rise and fall. And if this is the case, the three trilogies become somewhat interchangeable and the risk is that both The Rise of Skywalker and the Sequel Trilogy as a whole will bring the Skywalker Saga to an anticlimactic conclusion – one that could rival what is probably the most famous anti-climax in speculative fiction, “The Scouring of the Shire” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King (from The Lord of the Rings).

Abrams appears to be well aware of this problem and deals with it by very quickly revealing that Darth Sidious (AKA Senator Palpatine, the Emperor and played by Ian McDiarmid) not only survived the Original Trilogy, but has been manipulating events from the very beginning of the saga and is, on consequence, the antagonist of all three trilogies as well as the saga as a whole.  His role simply varies, one might say, from being the power behind the throne to the power on the throne (and back again). The mission of General Leia Organa (played by the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of some very clever CGI) and the Resistance is thus to thwart Sidious’s machinations and, in defeating him once and for all, bring the threat he has posed to the galaxy to an end. In my review of The Last Jedi I mentioned the development of a dramatic tension between Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Ren (AKA Ben Solo, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren and played by Adam Driver) and this is intensified in The Rise of Skywalker, becoming the axis around which the plot of the film revolves. Once Sidious is set up as the villain, two questions emerge. First, whether Rey and Ren will unite forces and second, if they do, whether it will be in service of the Sith or in service of the Jedi. Where I previously lamented the lack of a love triangle in both the Prequel and Sequel trilogies I think the increased focus on the relationship between the two worked very well because the raised stakes (and increased screen time) presented not only the two questions noted above, but further questions such as whether a galaxy without the Sith needs the Jedi at all. I am pleased to say that these and many other questions are all answered.

Having mentioned The Lord of the Rings books in the context of anti-climaxes, I should add that Abrams employs several filmic quotes or draws upon the imagery of (I am not sure which) Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of Tolkien: the Knights of Ren reflect the Uruk-hai, Finn and Jannah’s charge recalls Faramir’s ill-fated attempt to recapture Osgiliath, and the Sith homeland of Exegol resembles Mordor. This is not, however, to detract from The Rise of Skywalker and, having reached the end of Lucas’s three stories of three acts each, it seems entirely appropriate to reach beyond the genre of science fiction to fantasy, reminding the audience of the many similarities between the two. If I have one complaint it is that while all the questions are indeed answered in a satisfactory manner, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures could not resist a final few minutes in which the foundation for another saga is established – a literal investment for the future, in case the company directors decide that their net worth of $130 billion (according to Business Insider) isn’t enough. ****