Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games

My book is on sale now! If you'd like to purchase it for a 30% discount contact me and I can set up your order.

Tracing the evolution of fantasy gaming from its origins in tabletop war and collectible card games to contemporary web-based live action and massive multi-player games, this book examines the archetypes and concepts within the fantasy gaming genre alongside the roles and functions of the game players themselves. Other topics include: how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings helped shape fantasy gaming through Tolkien’s obsessive attention to detail and virtual world building; the community-based fellowship embraced by players of both play-by-post and persistent browser-based games, despite the fact that these games are fundamentally solo experiences; the origins of gamebooks and interactive fiction; and the evolution of online gaming in terms of technological capabilities, media richness, narrative structure, coding authority, and participant roles.

Read more at McFarland Publishing.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Wolfman

My dad is a big werewolf fan. I wrote a book on werewolves. So the notion of bringing the Wolf Man back to the screen is near and dear to my heart.

This version is actually a new incarnation of the classic Wolf Man movie of 1941 from Universal Studios, which in turn was preceded by Werewolf of London. The new version incorporates elements from both movies. From Werewolf London, we get the origin of the werewolf originating in Tibet, dueling werewolves, and death by gun. From the Wolf Man we get the Talbot family line, the "wolfbane" poem, and the silver wolf-headed walking stick. Perhaps the biggest inspiration is the makeup itself, which eschews the now standard gorilla-werewolf transformation for a form that looks distinctly like the original Wolf Man makeup.

Shakespearian actor and American Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns to his family manor after a long separation at the bequest of his dead brother's fiancé Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Conliffe is central to the plot; she enamors Lawrence as well as his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), and it is her presence or lack thereof that drives the lycanthropes to murder. As the body count rises, Francis Aberline of Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to solve the mystery. The hunt is on, but who's hunting whom?

Benicio del Toro is undeniably wolfish-looking, but he seems wooden and out of his element compared to Blunt, who uses her big soulful eyes and gothic Victorian attire to good effect. Unfortunately, they lack chemistry. More imposing but erratic is Hopkins, who lends a cold menace to the cast. Weaving doesn't have much to do but glare and shout orders, but then that's what we're accustomed to by now. He does add "horrified stare" to his trademarked expression.

Interspersed throughout the mystery is the family rivalry between sons and father. The best part of the movie takes place in an insane asylum. It provides an ironic take on lycanthropy as a mental disease and contrasts Victorian logic with the lurking world of magic and curses.

The Wolfman stays true to its roots. This is not a remake as much as it is a reimagining, filled with lush backdrops, gloomy settings, ancient moors, and a Tim Burton soundtrack that pays homage to Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. This incarnation is a gothic period piece set in Victorian times

Unfortunately, you get the sense that this new version is very insecure about its choices. The movie isn't particularly scary -- the horror is meant to be from the doomed plight of the protagonist -- but it nevertheless resorts to random shrieks and jump cuts. The Wolfman, while undeniably violent, transforms into an over-the-top death machine capable of tearing off heads and limbs with one swipe of his claws. This isn't just a new version of the Wolf Man, he's the Wolf Man on steroids.

Like Dracula, The Wolfman does not end well for any of its characters. As a gothic romance the best we can hope for is a resolution, not a happy ending. And that's exactly how it should be. The Wolfman respectfully carries a legacy of violent beasts on its hirsute shoulders, but mainstream audiences will probably hate it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


At a glance, it's hard to figure out what 9 is all about. There are ragdolls fighting in a post-apocalyptic landscape, but beyond that the trailers don't convey much. It probably didn't help that 9 was released amidst a swirl of movies with "nine" in the title.

9 takes place in a steampunk cross between Terminator and Little Big Planet, where the soulless Fabrication Machine known as BRAIN has destroyed all of humanity in an alternate history version of World War II. 9 is a Tim Burton tale of good and evil, as evidenced by the soft cloth of the "stitchpunk"-style green-eyed homunculi and the soulless red eye of BRAIN (Binary Reactive Artificially-Intelligent Neurocircuit). Similar to the premise of the sci-fi flop Virus, BRAIN sees everything as raw material, including organic remains. It fashions a series of increasingly lethal scouts, all with the sole purpose of absorbing and retrieving the souls of the heroic homunculi.

These poor little dolls are in for a world of hurt. Not much larger than a human hand, they embody all the traditional survivalist tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre: the power hungry leader (1), the befuddled but kind scientist (2), the innocents (3 and 4), the apprentice (5), the crazy prophet (6), the tough chick (7), the muscle (8), and of course or titular hero (9) who bucks the system. In this little slice of hell, the homunculi battle for both dominance and survival.

But really this is about fights between little stitch dolls and cyborgs. And what fights they are! There's the Cat Beast, the Winged Beast, and the Seamstress, and of course the BRAIN itself. The battles are as much symbolic as they are exciting, contrasting human vs. machine, soul vs. soulless, emotion vs. logic.

There are problems however. The biggest issue being that 9 is as much responsible for the plight of the homunculi as he is the solution. There are twists along the way, but the emotional heft lent to the struggle of these human-analogues is weakly supported by its simplistic setting. Because the ending is largely open to interpretation, a viewer's level of satisfaction depends on his perspective on evolution, faith, and the meaning of floating green dots in a drop of water. 9 is more metaphor than movie and certainly not for children, but it's a story worth watching.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Jennifer's Body

You might think, judging from the commercials, that Jennifer's Body is about some high school queen bee that uses her unholy popularity to cut a bloody swath through cliques and clichés of all types. Alternately, you might think it's basically soft-core porn featuring Megan Fox. None of these marketing approaches served Jennifer's Body well. Please note: this review contains spoilers!

Diablo Cody, who earned a reputation for smart dialogue from Juno, isn't interested in writing a horror flick. She wants to delve into the issues of friendship and sexual maturity, as viewed through the lens of demonic possession.

Right, about that. In a fashion similar to Ginger Snaps (which combined lycanthropy with puberty), Jennifer (Megan Fox) is now the sexiest girl in high school. Her best friend, helpfully identified as "Needy" (Amanda Seyfried), has nothing in common with her. In a twist on the old trope, it's Needy who has the boyfriend (Chip, played by Johnny Simmons).

The two end up at a dive bar for an emo band, Low Shoulder. Low Shoulder is actually a band of amateur cultists who believe, on the strength of Jennifer's transparent lie, that the hot chick oozing sexuality is in fact a virgin. This leads to a hilarious misunderstanding with hell, in which Jennifer is sacrificed only to return from the dead as a succubus.

Jennifer's Body waffles between horror tropes of stupidity – the band believing Jennifer's lie; Jennifer's ability to get away with murder; victims doing really dumb things – and mood-killing reality checks. The murders are drawn out over time, such that the high school deals with them in a realistic way reminiscent of other real-life high school tragedies. Midnight vigils are held, jocks cry, and camera crews roll tape.

Although Jennifer's Body is supposed to be about its namesake, we get precious little insight into Jennifer's thoughts. The film is actually about Needy, who is a typical "Final Girl" of horror movies. Like the legions of Final Girls that have gone before her, Needy is psychically connected to Jennifer in a way that's never explained. This movie is much more about Needy, her boyfriend, her "nerdy" persona that's never convincingly portrayed, and her awkward relationship with Jennifer. Jennifer's Body tries hard to imply there's some chemistry between the two of them, but it just doesn't click. Jennifer comes off as uniformly one-dimensional and Needy as a disconnected cipher.

The pacing in this film is incredibly jarring; at various points, Jennifer just jumps out the window and exits a scene. The movie starts to feel more like a series of vignettes than an actual plot. Cody uses the Lovecraftian technique of "I was there!" that is no longer in favor because it saps a film's momentum.

The ending, such as it is, is something of a foregone conclusion – we know that Needy is committed to an insane asylum because as narrator she tells us in the beginning of the film. But don't worry, Jennifer's condition is some kind of super-virus (you can "get succubus" on you, apparently), which destroys any pathos around Jennifer's transformation and turns our Final Girl into a superhero who can fly. That's right, fly.

Still, Jennifer's Body isn't terrible. Slickly produced, with competent special effects, the movie tries hard to be both sexy and cool. All the navel gazing around why it "failed" is unwarranted; Jennifer's Body made back twice what it cost to produce. It's just that Jennifer's Body, despite using lots of "hip" dialogue, wants you to like it so much that it throws everything at you: a contrived horror plot, prolonged seduction scenes, a lesbian kiss, and a superhero revenge sequence. In the era of the Internet, that's not enough to make a great horror film anymore. It could just have been easily called Needy's Movie.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a vastly underappreciated film that mixes martial arts swordsmanship, a post-apocalyptic setting, and a biblical narrative.

A war, over thirty years ago, killed off many people in the United States. Others were blinded from the blast. This creates an interesting disparity between those over thirty years of age who received an education and those under thirty who know nothing of the modern world (at one point, one of the thugs asks, "What's a television?").

This is an unpleasant world. Cannibalistic brigands ambush unwary travelers, identifiable by their shaking hands. Water is at a premium. Batteries are hard to find. The Book of Eli makes it clear that there's no currency, only barter.

Roaming the land is Eli (a subdued Denzel Washington), carrying a book with a cross on it. This book is greatly desired by Carnegie (a greasy Gary Oldman), who is also old enough to remember the power such a tome can have over the people. While Eli has been wandering for thirty years in pursuit of such a destination, Carnegie has been sending illiterate henchmen to retrieve every book he can find. The encounter between the two has all the fire and brimstone of a battle between heaven and hell.

Thrown into the mix is Solara (played beautifully by Mila Kunis, who finally sheds her trademark accent), a young, attractive girl who has grown up under Carnegie's protection but, as she flowers into womanhood, is about to become a bargaining chip, a piece of meat, and a lure. When there's no one left to protect her, she becomes a wanderer in Eli's footsteps.

From a religious point of view, it's educational to understand who Eli was in the Bible. In the Bible, Eli's children are cursed for behaving wickedly, a parallel for the war that destroyed civilization in the movie. God's curse assures that all men will "die by the sword" – in the movie Eli expertly cuts a bloody swath through his enemies with his machete. In the Bible, it was the job of Eli's sons to guard the Ark of the Covenant – the pact God made with man – just as Eli guards the holy book in the movie.

There's a twist ending that's not a twist of all if you read up about Eli in the Bible. But don't – watch the movie, then do some research, then watch the movie again. Like Eli, the experience will be rather eye-opening.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I am not a Sherlock Holmes scholar.

I KNOW of him, in the sense that I know that he's the fictional father of forensic science, was often portrayed with a deerstalker hat, pipe, and cape, and had a well meaning if bumbling sidekick known as Watson. He was also very British, a fact that looms large in this new interpretation of Holmes.

Holmes skill, and by proxy his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, orbited around the fundamentals of British society, something I think we Americans don't always appreciate. The notion that you can tell something about a man by the way he dresses, by the stains on his shirt, by the way he walks, by the inclination of his head or how he swings his arms, all feed into the insidious belief that one does not rise above one's class. This is part of Holmes' brilliance in penetrating disguises and deceptions – the bad guys can pretend to be someone else, but their true nature gives them away.

Viewed through this lens, this latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes (played with beleaguered smugness by Robert Downey Jr.) gives us glimpses of the society that helped shape him. We understand that Holmes can spot a tobacco stain, chalk dust, or a shoe scuff – but not the reasons that such details are intuitively obvious to a man of Holmes' intellect and perception. He's paying attention to things that the society of his time took for granted.

The plot revolves around Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a cultist capable of manipulating a secret society into believing that he can survive even the hangman's noose. The name is reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood, the author of the horror classic, The Wendigo, and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn manifests in the film as "The Temple of the Four Orders." Blackwood's sinister influence is perhaps more appropriately attributed to Aleister Crowley. The secret society is significant, because it blurs the social boundaries, with members from across high society (even Americans!). This is simply intolerable, and we look to Holmes to set the social order straight once more.

Guy Ritchie is no fool – he knew that to make Holmes palatable to Americans the Holmes myth would need to be punched up (literally). So all the vices, all the physical prowess, and all the eccentricities of Holmes are in full display here – his lack of tidiness, his familiarity with the marital art bartitsu, and his obsession with Irene Adler. There is evidence that all these elements existed in the Holmes canon. They were of course revealed gradually, whereas the film throws them all into the pot at once. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your appreciation for pulp.

The pulp film style – non-stop action interspersed with little explanation – is in full force. Victorian England isn't explained; it's simply on display in all its gritty glory. The extras are really ugly, brutish caricatures while the leads are almost luminescent in their cleanliness and pearly-white teeth. Adler being the prime example (played by the delicious Rachel McAdams).

McAdams seems woefully out of her depth. While her character is supposedly so wily as to be the only woman to give Holmes a run for his money, it's established very early that Holmes has the upper hand. In fact, their relationship comes off as something of a schoolboy crush – understandable, but not quite a worthy foil for Holmes.

Downey is his usually disheveled, recovering-addict self. It's clear Downey's become the new go-to man for playing characters that closely parallel his own real-life troubles, and the actor inhabits them ably. Maybe a little too much so – the infernal "Downey mumble" is in full effect here—sometimes I can't make out a single word of what he was saying.

The real standout is Jude Law as Watson. Law's refined yet frustrated Watson grounds Holmes, as he should. He also upstages Downey with his easy British eloquence. This version of Watson is no fool but a worthy equal, establishing a buddy-cop vibe to the film.

Ritchie's cinematography is practically a character unto itself. Whether he's showing Holmes' calculating his attacks in slow motion or zooming through carriage and across cobblestones, he manages to encompass all of Victorian England with a sweep of the camera. It's a testament to Ritchie's skill that the film doesn't drag despite its long running time.

Loud, violent, fast-paced, and a little too blasé in its forensic explanations, Sherlock Holmes is nevertheless entertaining enough to make it worth seeing for fans who know of Holmes by reputation only.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Judging from the advertisements, Moon seemed to be about a man going slowly insane on, well, the moon. I assumed it was more of a movie like Event Horizon, where a lonely person stumbles on some mind-blasting truth. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Actually, that's an accurate description of the film – it's jut that the mind-blasting truth is eminently relatable and human. Moon's a lot more complicated than it looks.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole inhabitant of a moon base dedicated to mining Helium-3 for Lunar Industries. His companion is GERTY (Kevin Spacey), a ceiling-hung robot that expresses itself through emoticons. For three years, Sam has overseen the various mining robots, worked on his wooden models, talked to his plants, and longed to be reunited with his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and daughter Eve (Rosie Shaw). With his time up, he's ready to go home. The catch is that Sam perceives everything through a filtered lens – even his transmissions to Earth are delayed. Sam isn't just alone for three months; he's alone without any synchronous human contact.

Red herrings abound. It's easy to focus on the HAL-like robot GERTY, a major character and foil for Sam. How can you trust something that sounds so benign as Kevin Spacey? Ironically, GERTY is one of the most human characters on the base.

Moon's twist isn't in the revelation of The Truth, but in its implications. Moon questions who Sam is, what he represents, and what makes him – and us – human. We are, the director seems to say, defined by our memories, and that's enough to fuel us in our daily grind. Sam is every worker who has been at it for years, always waiting for the next big break, the next reorganization, the next lotto ticket that will get him out of the crappy dead end job. It's a lot like Memento, high praise for a film that cost just $5 million to produce.

The fun is in watching Sam deal with the truth of his situation and how he rises above it (or succumbs to it). Moon is littered with clues, making it worth another view. This is a tightly crafted, smart film that takes a single science fiction element and explores it thoroughly.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Synthetic Worlds

Quite a bit has been written about virtual worlds recently, primarily by psychologists, sociologists, and other "people-oriented" researchers who dive in fingers- and feet-first into the synthetic landscape. What's missing is research from other disciplines. Castronova brings the important perspective of an economist to the table.

But that's not what you get at the beginning of the book. Castronova has much larger goals in mind, attempting to introduce the vast intricacies of virtual worlds to newbies. This, in my opinion, is a mistake – the first chapter derails the book and those looking for a more serious discussion might be turned off. But if you're willing to slog through or simply skip those chapters, you're in for a treat.

The hook here is the economics – that people can get rich off of World of Warcraft – and while Castronova addresses that possibility, it's an oversimplification of his premise. Castronova provides a perspective on the insane growth of virtual worlds. If he is occasionally starry-eyed about the possibilities it's forgivable, because in economic terms virtual growth is unprecedented.

Castronova occasionally strays outside economics territory, but his thoughts are still valuable. He posits that the "Wild West" nature of self-governing through player-killing simply doesn't work, which matches with my experience as an administrator on Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). He points the finger at "Coding Authorities," the companies who create and manage these worlds. At base, these companies have no interest in actually monitoring the goings-on of the world. Castronova skewers this sort of laissez-faire management with the statement "I've never once seen a customer service representative actually do anything." And he's right – the sheer burden of properly managing virtual worlds is much too onerous for a game company looking to make back its investment on the latest graphical avatars. Or in other words, until virtual worlds collapse in a flaming ball of anarchy (like Ultima Online nearly did) the programmers and developers won't lift a finger because it doesn't pay to. It's a refreshingly realistic take in a series of breathless books touting the wonders of virtual interaction.

Castronova concludes Synthetic Worlds by daring to make predictions about what will happen next. In a book about the exponentially increasing virtual worlds, this is risky. Within years of publication, some of his predictions have proven out (virtual interfaces are slowly advancing to include gestural interfaces, like the Wii) and some are just simply off base ("virtual citizenship" and its implications have shaky logic). But that doesn't detract from the book's value to those new to online worlds or beginning their research in this relatively new medium.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Public Enemies

On the surface, Public Enemies seems to be about bank robbers. But it's actually about the triumphs and travails of celebrities in a time of great upheaval – which is to say, it's about Hollywood today.

Johnny Depp, playing Dillinger, is charismatic, masculine, bold, even reckless. He seems unwilling to admit that his lifestyle is a dead-end, preferring instead to live in the moment. And yet he seeks human companionship in Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), swooping in to claim her as his "girl" without really asking her permission. He is a titan among men, striding into her humdrum life to sweep Billie off her heels and, throwing caution to the wind, seek his own fortune.

Christian Bale, playing Special Agent Melvin Purvis, is the man tasked with taking Dillinger down. He navigates the world of public opinion and the bumbling incompetency of a young FBI task force not yet hardened by adversity. Purvis has a lot to prove, balancing his own morality with a new era of government ruthlessness.

This movie isn't really about facts, though. A trip through Wikipedia shows the number of liberties – and there are many – that the movie took with actual events. Instead, Michael Mann tries to craft a narrative out of the battle between these two sides, creating the classic duality where two actors at the top of their game face off.

Purvis is the principled, dark, brooding character that bucks authority and follows his own noble path by being smarter and more dedicated than the authorities in charge. Dillinger is the wild man that criminals turn to, pushed to the edge because of the Great Depression and the law. Both men have nothing to lose but their very souls. If this sounds familiar, it's pretty much the same plot as The Dark Knight, only with gangsters instead of comic book villains.

For all the great action sequences, close-ups, and monologues, there isn't much we know about the characters in the end. Without the benefit of a prequel like The Dark Knight, Purvis is as much a cipher as Dillinger. Missing is the exploration of the environments that helped craft the careers of both men, and it becomes clear that Mann is more interested in making modern analogies (about torture, about wiretapping, and government abuse in general) than sharing a sense of history.

And that's the problem. While Public Enemies retells the tale, more or less, of the rise and fall of Dillinger, it fails to provide the backdrop for why it happened. We get occasional insights into the evolution of the FBI, but not of public sentiment, of the Great Depression, of how society helped create cops and robbers. At one point Dillinger provides a veiled reference to his past that's just as cryptic as the Joker's – because it doesn't really matter. This movie isn't about why things happened; it's more about giving two actors their chance to shine.

In that regard Public Enemies is a success. It's long, filled with philosophical dialogue and occasionally improbable shootouts. Although there's a stab at some kind of pathos, connecting Dillinger's own devil-may-care lifestyle with his romance ("blackbird"), it feels contrived. The most compelling character is steel-eyed Charles Winstead, played by the awesome Stephen Lang. I'd rather see a movie just about him…and got my wish with Avatar.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Brutal Legend

Growing up in high school, I was not a Heavy Metal fan. I looked askance at the dudes in their black t-shirts and doodling death symbols. I was struggling to be accepted as a gamer, and although the Metalheads played Dungeons & Dragons as much as I did, they came from a very different background.

As an adult it's much easier to embrace this form of counter-culturalism. Heavy Metal was rebelling at a time when 80s conformity was emerging, overhyped, oversynthed, and carefully marketed. Heavy Metal was at turns loud, angry, and violent or melodic, sorrowful, even romantic. But it's not too late. Brutal Legend will show you the way.

A lot of people criticize the short playing time of Brutal Legend, as if tearing from scene to scene, save point to save point, is the only purpose of the game. In fact, Brutal Legend is entirely the opposite – it's a world meant to be explored, a culture meant to be absorbed, a state of mind meant to be embraced. You've got to let go of your hang-ups if you really want to enjoy Brutal Legend.

Brutal Legend follows Riggs as he journeys through this strange land. He finds himself in a familiar role: supporting a better-groomed star from behind the scenes. With its twisty plotline of love and loss, allegiance and betrayal, players may be surprised to discover that Brutal Legend has a strong romantic element – an important part of Heavy Metal.

But mostly Brutal Legend is about music. Jack Black as Eddie Riggs is our comedic tour guide through this insane universe, which occasionally pretends it's part of pre-history but is actually a mad mix of Nordic legend, Heavy Metal sensibilities, and Frank Fazetta and Heironymus Bosch's art. It all ties together through a back-story that can be discovered piece by piece by wandering the land, digging up artifacts, musical solos that act as spells, and releasing bound and gagged stone dragons for blood tributes. On paper Riggs is a roadie, but in practice he's a bard of musical Metal, capable of summoning wild beasts, melting the face of his enemies, or even changing day into night.

Music is its own character in Brutal Legend. Riggs can create a vehicle known as the Druid Plow, an incredibly souped-up car that can drop mines, fire heat-seeking rockets, blast foes with sound, and – most importantly – provides the game's kicking soundtrack. This soundtrack is the perfect mood music for the game itself, which feels like you've been thrust into one of those Heavy Metal album covers.

Brutal Legend is highly original too. Forget the usual fantasy tropes of elves and dwarves. This game features carnivorous deer, porcupines bristling with metal quills, huge steel-headed beasts, monsters made-up like Kiss that breathe fire…and that's just the local wildlife. There's a whole coterie of Tim Burton-esque undead foes, the aforementioned Bosch-inspired demons, fire-trailing bikers, speaker-toting roadies…this game is as much as feast for the eyes as it is for the ears.

In fact, this game turned me on to groups I'd never heard of before: Angel Witch, 3 Inches of Blood, Motorhead, Riot, Omen, and KMFDM. I may not be a Metal-head, but Brutal Legend made me a fan of groups I would never otherwise have listened to. That's the highest compliment I can pay a game.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Waxwork II: Lost in Time

Quick, what movie features a murderous disembodied hand, zombies, buckets of blood, possession, projectile organs, time travel, and Bruce Campbell getting tortured? No, not Evil Dead II…Waxwork II: Lost in Time!

Picking up immediately where the first Waxwork left off, Mark Loftmore (still Zach Galligan) and Sarah Brightman (replaced by the considerably hotter Monika Schnarre) attempt to return to their normal lives. Sarah creeps back to her abusive stepfather's home where he berates her for ruining her dress. After she goes to bed, the zombie hand (also from the first film) murders the abusive stepfather because…let's face it, he had it coming.

In the typical Waxwork aside into "that makes perfect sense" territory, Sarah is blamed for her stepfather's murder, claims about murderous zombie hands not withstanding. She will likely be condemned to death unless she can prove her innocence. And that's where any semblance of realism ends, because Sarah and Mark concoct a scheme to find ANOTHER zombie hand by traveling backwards in time through a magic mirror. Because of course, that's where zombie hands hang out, right?

Waxwork II is of course not about time travel at all. It's about whatever the director (Anthony Hickox) feels like parodying, beginning with Frankenstein, alternating between Alien and The Haunting, and then throwing in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Godzilla, Jack the Ripper, Nosferatu, and Dawn of the Dead for good measure. And oh yes, a long fantasy sequence that has nothing to do with anything.

Waxwork II establishes a couple of things: They are NOT time traveling, but more dimension traveling, or perhaps film hopping. Mark and Sarah have stumbled into the world of Cartagra, "God's video game," as Sir Wilfred explains – in the form of a crow (it's complicated). Cartagra is a universe where good and evil duke it out for supremacy, apparently in the form of movie plots. Mark and Sarah are now Time Warriors, inhabiting the protagonist roles of each movie and ensuring the good guys win. Or something like that.

It is also a different form of dimension hopping than the pocket dimensions seen in the first movie. When Mark, facing down Igor the hunchback, attempts to disbelieve, he gets socked in the face for his trouble.

It's clear that Hickox a real fondness for all things Evil Dead and for swashbuckling romance. He has his cake and eats it too here (like he did in the first film) by including a long fantasy sequence involving what must be the first sword fight across movie genres. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

FRANKENSTEIN: Mark manifests as the butler, while Sarah is Frankenstein's wife. They are caught in the moment when villagers are about to set the place on fire. It takes awhile for Sarah to remember her true nature, during which time Mark battles it out with Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein's Monster, Igor, and angry villagers. Using a weird compass he found amongst his uncle's belongings, Mark can usually find the exit out of each movie by running in that direction, regardless of all apparent obstacles. Once he figures this out, Mark and Sarah are split up as they escape…

THE HAUNTING: Filmed in black and white, it's clear Hickox is a fan of The Haunting. And so is Marina Sirtis, collecting a paycheck. But the biggest winner here is Bruce Campbell in a hilarious series of slapstick. This is the funniest part of the movie. It's also the most overt homage to Evil Dead.

ALIEN: Sarah has taken on the role of Ripley. She faces down a giant Alien-rip-off – literally, the Aliens look terrible, with huge, lumbering heads. The Facehugger-equivalents are much more disturbing, with tentacles probing orifices. This scene drags on far too long, seeking to emulate the terrible silences and long pauses in Alien. Fortunately, Mark shows up and ends the madness just in time.

RANDOM FANTASY SETTING: Hickox may be a fan of horror movies, but what he really wants to do is write a swashbuckling romance. So stuck in the middle of the rest of the horror homage is this sloppy collection of Monty Python jokes, subpar special effects, and confusing elements. The best part is George (Michael Des Barres), a powdered, effeminate dandy who isn't afraid to murder people with a garrote. There are some laugh-out-loud jokes here, but they don't save the piece. Oh and David Carradine (?). There's also the aforementioned appearance of the talking crow, which is in fact Sir Wilfred reincarnated. His appearance presages a huge exposition dump explaining Cartagra. No matter, all is forgiven as Mark engages in a no-holds-barred sword fight with the villain, Scarabis (Alexander Godunoy) across the universe. In no particular order, their cross-dimensional brawl leads them to…

GODZILLA: A giant, poorly made puppet. The most hilarious part being that Mark is badly dubbed in English.

JACK THE RIPPER: Okay, not really a movie per se. Poor Jack gets kicked into…

NOSFERATU: Silent and with intertitles, Hickox nails the entire feel of a silent movie. And we get to see Nosferatu gnash his teeth after The Ripper.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: Sarah takes a sneak peak at people running from a train. And alien pods.

DAWN OF THE DEAD: 1970s style attire, a funky beat, and a bunch of people bristling with guns shooting at zombies in a mall. It also conveniently provides a disembodied zombie hand, that flimsy "evidence" our heroes were looking for.

The swordfight ends back in Fantasy-land, but only one person can go back through the portal. Mark pushes Sarah through.

Sarah, with evidence of a zombie hand CLEARLY confirming her innocence, receives a note from Mark in the "past", attempting to establish that he was indeed time traveling. Yeah, right.

And the lovers are reunited. Eventually. The End.

Cue a gonzo song about the film, complete with rap lyrics that narrate the entire ridiculous story and 1980s style dancers.

Less horror and more a tribute to films Hickox happens to like, Waxwork II never seems to make up its mind as to what film it wants to be when it grows up. But that's part of its charm.


Definition of the word "crank": [KRANGK]:

1) An unbalanced person who is overzealous in the advocacy of a private cause. Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is a hitman charged by West Coast Crime Syndicate boss Carlito (Carlos Sanz) with assassinating a rival gang leader, Don Kim (Keone Young). In a fit of revenge, Chelios' rival Ricky Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo) injects him with a "Beijing Cocktail" while he's sleeping. Verona really, really hates Chelios – the kind of hate that goes beyond simply murdering his foe. The Cocktail will kill Chelios in one hour if he doesn't keep his adrenaline up. As the movie cheerfully explains, there are three ways to keep said adrenaline up: fear, rage, and sex. So Chelios sets out to destroy the man who destroyed him, buying himself just a little more time through a series of increasingly reckless attempts to keep his adrenaline up.

2) A nasal decongestant used illicitly for its euphoric effects. The most obvious, and the first tactic Chelios resorts to, is drugs. He snorts them. He injects them. He snorts them again, all under the orders of his Mafia doc. This may be the first action movie that has a pro-drug message: Hey, at least it's keeping your heart rate up!

3) To increase the volume of an electronic device. Crank is loud. Big, dumb and loud, filled with kicking beats, whip cuts, video game flashes, surreal moments reminiscent of Naked Lunch (Chelios is, after all, under the influence of a great many drugs). Sometimes it's hard to make out what's going on over all the swearing and the explosions. Statham awesome martial arts talents are completely wasted here, with a few punches and a neck-break or two. Even his reputation as a driver is underplayed, although perhaps smashing a car through a mall and landing it on an escalator counts.

What's not quite as cool is the homophobia, misogyny, and racism on full display. Chelios' flamboyantly gay contact Kaylo (Efren Ramirez) doesn’t know how to fight even when he tries to help and then gets tortured, all the while being spat on with homophobic slurs. Chelios' girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who never picks up her cell phone because she doesn't have one, hangs around her apartment all day stoned out of her mind, and stupidly believes Chelios' claim that he's a video game programmer. Throughout the escalating attacks that Chelios tries to keep from her, Eve blathers on about shopping and her nails and her clothes. When Chelios sexually assaults her (remember that third way to keep his adrenaline up?), Eve gives in. Then they rut in the street before an alternately horrified/curious crowd of Asians. Because apparently it's not as squicky if you do it in front of people of a different race who don't speak the same language as you.

4) To turn and twist; zigzag. Chelios carves a murderous path towards his foe. In the process he picks fights with thugs, robs a convenience store, and hijacks a hospital. But there's a twist, you see: Chelios never KILLED the Tong leader! See? Chelios is actually a nice guy! Shouldn't we forgive him for all the killing and the attempted rape?

Instead of sharing this plot twist at the very last moment, it telegraphs the whole scene much too early. We already know Kim is alive well before the "twist" happens. Which concludes, thankfully, with Chelios grappling Verona as they plunge to their deaths from a helicopter.

4) Bogus; false; phony. But the movie's not over yet. Oh no, not yet. Instead of splattering like a bloody pancake batter when he hits, Chelios BOUNCES off a car, landing in front of the camera, nostrils still flaring, eyes still blinking, as his heart beats once more.

And that's when we know this is a joke. If it wasn't clear, the credits concludes with a badly pixilated video game sequence of Chelios shooting bad guys, picking up power-ups, and his digitized beating heart. So all those drugs Chelios took? Power ups. All those bad guys Chelios killed? Points. That time limit on his heart? That was the time limit on the video game.

Chelios bounced off the car because the movie is a commentary about what a video game in real life might look like. Or rather, what a certain style of video game might look like. Except nowadays, even Grand Theft Auto has more pathos and plot than this tripe.

Crank earns an additional star for the irony. But that doesn’t make it a good movie.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Judging from the name, you might think Avatar is about a young martial artist reincarnated in a series of spiritual warriors destined to save a world of kung fu magic. But that's a different movie. You might also think that Avatar is like Gamer and Surrogates, where a three-dimensional character acts on behalf of a real person in a virtual world. That's not Avatar either.

Avatar is everything James Cameron learned in Aliens and his undersea documentaries rolled into one.

On the one side we have an above-land version of all those beautiful underwater documentaries. The land is truly alien, colorful glow in the dark flora and plenty of six-limbed fauna. Inhabiting this land are the Na'vi, giant blue-skinned cat people with tails and neural fibers in their always-plaited hair braids. These blue critters most certainly didn't come from one of Cameron's documentaries. More likely, they came from a lot of furry art on the Internet – there's no discernible reason for how the Na'vi, who are surprisingly humanoid, evolved from anything else on the planet (remember those six-limbed monstrosities?). They look like they were completely made up. The weird neural fibers sticking out of their hair doesn't make much sense either, but Cameron's much more interested in the special effects of the IMAX experience, so whenever you start asking questions like this—


On the other side we have the United States Colonial Marines, embodied in this film by ex-Marines who are now working for profit. Their job: safeguard and if necessary cleanse Pandora for its precious metals. Specifically, "Unobtainium."

Now ya see, the term "unobtainium" is a joke. It's a reference to an exotic material in a plot to make some other plot-moving element work. Without it, the plot doesn't move forward. But Cameron, who is at this point demonstrating an interesting disdain for his audience, makes it clear that it's not important what the hell Unobtainium does. What matters is that people will kill for it. If that doesn't make sense to you, then why are you wearing funny glasses in a movie theater anyway?

The Marines are decked out with actual mechs (just like in Aliens), heavy weapons (just like in Aliens), flamethrowers (just like in Aliens) and oh yeah, Michelle Rodriguez as a snarky pilot…just like in…oh you get the idea. The Marines are led by the best character in the movie, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

He's so badass…
* he kicks open an airlock door, braving Pandora's lethal atmosphere just to shoot somebody.
* he jumps out of an exploding ship while piloting a mech with one hand.
* he would rather die in one-on-one knife combat with a Na'vi than give up.

In short, Quaritch makes the movie. I would watch an entire film of him kicking alien butt any day.

On the side of the aliens we have Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine who has lost the use of his legs. He's replacing his brother, who died in a mugging, and because of their shared genetic ancestry Sully is uniquely suited to pilot an avatar – a Na'vi body, basically. So Sully gets shipped for FIVE YEARS across the universe to Pandora and promptly gets lost. Why doesn't this incredibly expensive avatar have some sort of tracking mechanism built into it?


I'm not sure why Worthington keeps getting these lead roles. It's not that he's a bad actor; it's just that he's terrible at disguising his Australian accent in roles that either obfuscates where he comes from or where he's not playing an Australian. Sigourney Weaver is radiant here, but her character is largely wasted. In fact, the movie is stuffed with so many characters that it's a relief when Cameron finally starts killing a few off.

Oh yeah, the killing. See, the Na'vi preach a love for all forms of life. When they kill a beast, they thank it for giving up its spirit, etc. etc. If you've ever seen any movie about noble Native Americans, Avatar hits all the important points. But apparently, this doesn't apply to greedy Marines, even those just doing their job in a war. Instead of allowing some moral ambiguity, Cameron makes it pretty clear who the bad guys are. He's also quite good at telegraphing exactly what will happen by foreshadowing certain events with a sledgehammer to your forehead. Every single plant and animal that appears in the movie has an important role later.

But you might not care about all that. Avatar's graphics are incredible. The Na'vi are giant, living, breathing beings. The bizarre life forms are terrifying precisely because they're so lifelike. The special effects are unparalleled. As for the plot…


Tuesday, January 5, 2010


You might think that a movie titled "Waxwork" is about some guy who kills people and turns them into wax mannequins, like in House of Wax starring Vincent Price. And for the first half of Waxwork, you'd be right.

But Anthony Hickox, who directed Waxwork, wasn't content to just direct a horror movie. He wanted to direct ALL of them. So he dreamed up this idea (he's also the writer) of a waxwork display serves as a gate to a pocket dimension, where unsuspecting visitors are put in the roles of the victims. If the victim dies, their dead bodies become part of the waxwork. Clever, huh?

Of course, this being an 80s movie, Waxwork is stuffed with characters from The Breakfast Club: the slut (China), the virgin (Sarah), the confused protagonist (Mark), miscellaneous female sidekick (Gemma), her "cool" boyfriend (Tony) and the prankster moron (James). They're all there to die of course.

Why? Does anyone really care? Oh all right if you insist…

Mark's grandfather was a benevolent adventurer who, for reasons that make sense only in movie-land, collected trinkets from eighteen of the most evil people who ever lived. Mr. Lincoln (David Warner) has sold his soul to the devil and plans to bring about a zombie apocalypse by feeding victims to the wax effigies of each of the villains. Lincoln kills Mark's grandfather in the first few minutes of the movie, stealing his artifacts and embedding them in his wax effigies. This makes no sense, but Waxwork is unconcerned by your petty notions of plot and narrative. It's only out to show cool monsters killing people.

What we get, then, is a bunch of vignettes where some poor unsuspecting idiot stumbles into a waxwork display and, discombobulated and suddenly in the role of the victim, struggles to survive. Let the Battle Royale begin (this review contains spoilers)!


TONY VS. WEREWOLF: Actually, it's Tony vs. John Rhys-Davies as the werewolf, who must have been hard up for work. No matter, he promptly becomes a werewolf after sending Tony out for firewood. Tony, confused and thinking this is a trick (because that's of course what victims do), plays along until the werewolf bites him. Seconds later HE'S a werewolf and two hunters come in to finish the job. So actually it's TONY VS. OLD GUY WITH SILVER BULLET. Two guesses who wins.

But that was just the warm up act. What we really want to see how China, ahem, handles herself.

CHINA VS. DRACULA: Oh this is going to be good. China is in a gothic-style mansion where Dracula and his host as eating raw meat. What ensues is an oddly slow, creepy dinner scene that features no violence whatsoever. Until China goes to bed, a vampire tries to eat her, and as she flees she stumbles upon her fake fiancée strapped to a table. That's when the fun starts: the vampires have kept him alive while they feast on the bloody remnants of his leg. This leads to China fighting off a whole host of vampires, until she finally meets Big D himself. Does China "can't a girl get laid around here without being burned at the stake" have a chance? That's foreshadowing folks.

The movie then injects an odd dose of reality as Sarah and Mark go to the police to plead their case. Detective Roberts is unimpressed but decides to check it out on his own along with his silent partner (the one in the bad Miami Vice getup). But who cares about him? What we're really here for is…

DETECTIVE ROBERTS VS. THE MUMMY: Roberts, unlike the other idiots, knows how to handle himself. Roberts is thrust into the role of an adventurer along with his helpless female sidekick and a Howard Carter stand in. They open the tomb, only to release a black-ooze drooling mummy, who proceeds to kill fake-Carter and throw everyone else in the sarcophagus. See, even kick-ass cops get killed in Waxwork.

Of course, Sarah and Mark then have to investigate things themselves. Which leads to…

MARK VS. ZOMBIES: Mark ends up in Night of the Living Dead. He escapes by shouting that old D&D maxim, "I disbelieve!" And it actually works. Except for the whole dismembered zombie hand…

ZOMBIE HAND VS. WAXWORK: This zombie hand actually launches its own franchise later. Seriously, this has to be the first case of a zombie hand becoming so pivotal to a plot that it launches a sequel.

SARAH VS. THE MARQUIS DE SADE: Now don't get me wrong, de Sade is pretty villainous but…really? The Marquis de Sade? Fine. Sarah, virginal, sweet Sarah, falls under his hypnotic spell, whereupon R-rated tortures take place, including a prolonged whipping scene with lots of moaning. In fact, this whole scene drags for a while and starts to get a little uncomfortable. Eventually, Mark shows up to rescue her. The Marquis de Sade, who we didn't realize until now is apparently the main villain, promises revenge.

JAMES AND GEMMA VS. PLOT DEVICE: Lincoln needed four victims (poor Roberts doesn't count, I guess), so James and Gemma have gotta go. They take Sarah and Mark's place as corpses in the waxwork displays.

BABY FROM IT'S ALIVE!, AUDREY FROM LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, RANDOM AXE MURDERER…YOU GET THE IDEA VS. EVERYBODY: Mark's wheelchair-bound uncle Sir Wilfred, his butler, and a bunch of guys with pitchforks and guns come in and burn the place down in a grand, awkward melee. Rubber masks are smashed with bats, miscellaneous extras are hurled through the air, and much mayhem is made. In the fracas, de Sade has a sword fight (?) with Mark, who wields his grandfather's magical saber (?!) bestowed upon Mark by his uncle. And then somebody falls into a vat of wax, because this movie is named Waxwork and somebody has to.

The end.

Waxwork was made by a horror buff that loved all these old horror movies but didn't feel like they had enough gore, so he went and filmed his own versions with a bigger special effects budget. By far the best effect is the dimensional transition between the scenes.

Oh sure, the acting is terrible, the jokes aren't all that funny, and the plot makes no sense whatsoever. But you know what? This movie is so fully of cheesiness, special effects, and gore that it rises above it all to turn into some kind of monumental tower of waxy, cheesy awesome.

And for that this movie gets four zombie fingers.