Friday, August 28, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Rat on a Stick (Tunnels & Trolls)

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Rat on a Stick (Tunnels & Trolls) by George R. Paczolt
5.0 out of 5 stars 10 levels of McDonalds crossed with murder hobos, August 28, 2015
Ah, the 80s! This supplement was published in 1982 and is peppered with Judges Guild's trademark art, most of it by Kevin Siembedia before he launched Palladium. At heart, Rat On a Stick is 10-level dungeon. Designed by George R. Paczolt and Edward R.G. Mortimer, these two lovable scamps have put together a dungeon that's as randomly insane as it is fun.

Although it's nominally for Tunnels & Trolls or Monsters, Monsters rules, the adventure can "...easily be adapted to any other FRP rules. (No, don't ask me for the conversion factors. In our club, I handle he two mentioned above and leave the others alone.)" You got that? Don't ask for conversion rules, because George "leaves the other games" alone!

Also of note: This dungeon is (and the quotes are in the text itself) "just for fun." As a result, wandering monsters may occur repeatedly without worry of becoming extinct. Which is a good thing, because tigers roam the dungeon frequently.

It's also a good thing that this dungeon is just for fun, because instead of handwaving the rules for adventurers running a restaurant in a dungeon, there are two pages of rules for PCs running a rat-on-a-stick franchise. Only in this case, you literally kill the competition or it kills you.

Throughout the dungeon are adventurers just trying to get by. Some are on their way in, others are on their way out (in more ways than one), and some have set up shop. They all have porn names like Mighty Max, Wallopin' Willy, and Sabrina the Sumptuous.

The best part of the dungeon is Beast-Thing. This 500 Monster Rating critter secrets acid, is only slightly slower than the PCs, and is mindlessly aggressive. It lives on the 10th level but can show up on the 2nd in what can only be described as scaring the bejeezus out of low-level PCs.

There's really no rhyme or reason to what's going on in this dungeon, other than an excuse to kill stuff and maybe start a business. It's ten levels of McDonalds crossed with murder hobos and it is glorious.

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Ancient Odysseys

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! Pocket Edition by Brett M. Bernstein
4.0 out of 5 stars More thorough than the the OD&D boxed set, August 28, 2015
Precis Media provides an entire introductory booklet in the form of "Treasure Awaits," an introductory supplement for Ancient Odysseys.

"Treasure Awaits" is basically the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, streamlined and winnowed down to its core components. It has four races (elves humans, dwarves, and "hoblings"), three vocations (rogues, wizards, and warriors), three attributes (fitness, awareness, and reasoning ranging from 1 to 5), and adventuring pursuits (skills, basically). This is not a game based on the Open Game License.

Ancient Odysseys is centered exclusively on dungeon crawling and as such does it very well. There's not a huge amount of math involved (tests are attribute plus pursuit plus a die roll) which makes it an ideal game for kids playing. As an introductory book, "Treasure Awaits" is surprisingly thorough, and certainly moreso than the original D&D boxed set.

Michael J. Tresca gave 2 stars to: The Red Mausoleum (Advanced Adventures)

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

The Red Mausoleum (Advanced Adventures) by James Boney
2.0 out of 5 stars Very 10-foot pole-y, August 28, 2015
Expeditious Retreat Press continues the OSR with "The Red Mausoleum," an adventure for 6 to 8 adventurers for levels 12 to 15.

For those unfamiliar with the Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC), it's a recreation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons using the Open Game License. It's available for free and one of the most successful Old School Renaissance (OSR)-style initiatives, widely embraced by players who want that AD&D feel.

As someone who played AD&D for over a decade, I remember the game's flaws without the shine of nostalgia. And one of those is the Tomb of Horrors. The Tomb is frequently mentioned as a kind of "when I played D&D, we walked backwards in the snow!" rite of passage for adventurers. I ran it for my players and they were unhappy with me, with one character putting his arm in a sphere of annihilation. I ended up tweaking the adventure so that he only lost his arm (vs. being utterly annihilated), but it was an important lesson in how an adventure could be really wrong for my group -- who expected some basic fairness in how they approached the game. Author James C. Boney remembers the Tomb and he set out to resurrect it in OSRIC format.

The Red Mausoleum has a plot more than just grave robbing; the PCs are retaliating against undead raids originating from it. The PCs are rewarded 50 gp for the head of every undead creature. Which is weird, because I'm not entirely sure undead heads look different from dead heads. What's to stop an unscrupulous party from beheading a bunch of corpses and handing them over?

Also, clever PCs might decide that rather than going through the insane contortions to figure out how to get into the mausoleum by the front door by trailing one of the undead raiders back to a hidden cave that "reveals the edge of the Sistermoors within easy walking distance of the PC's base village." This will easily skip most of the levels of the dungeon, and given that the bad guys ride nightmares, having a highly accessible tunnel seems unnecessary -- just send incorporeal undead and flyers out of a difficult-to-reach access point.

There are other things that bug me too. A Hall of Honored Dead that was built for 24 knights contains a series of summoned guardians that get pumped out every three rounds, ranging from squirrels to a troll to black puddings. There are hordes of undead roaming the lower levels that don't pose a significant threat to the PCs, which means it's just a long slog of dice rolling. It feels like a pile of monsters is being thrown at the PCs to make up for the fact that 15th level characters can probably plow through most opponents.

Despite these flaws, the adventure works hard to include puzzles and riddles that unlock its secrets. As a DM my players would get frustrated and either leave or resort to destructive magic. In my experience this isn't much fun, but if you play hardcore where everything is out to kill the PCs and nobody dares move without poking the floor and ceiling with a 10-foot pole, The Red Mausoleum is for you!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: The League of Regrettable Superheroes

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History by Jon Morris
5.0 out of 5 stars A who's-who of future superhero movies, August 5, 2015
It's easy these days to think of superheroes as highly polished, camera-ready icons that finely tread the line between believable and heroic. But the reality is superheroes went through various stages that reflected the times, from playfully irreverent (Golden Age) to freakishly weird (Silver Age) to mother effin EXTREME!!! (modern age) and the book is divided into sections reflecting the goofiest superhero casualties of each.

The irony of it all is that any one of these characters would make an awesome Adult Swim cartoon or weird short -- they would easily find their home on the Internet. Whether it's the witchy rhyming Mother Hubbard (page 47), the zippy Speed Centaur (page 59), the zippier Zippo (page 63), the animated mannequin Brother Power the Geek (page 70), Fatman the human flying saucer (page 80), or the aptly named Adam X - the Extreme (page 104), this book has an unfortunate superhero for every situation. And yes, it has U.S. 1 the superhero space trucker (page 126).

If I didn't like it so much I would take points off for including ROM, Spaceknight (page 118) but the rest of the book is so good I'll let it slide. In fact, the book is so good that by the end you'll be convinced there's probably hundreds of these goofball characters just waiting to be tapped. With the superhero trend waning, it's probably only a matter of time before this book becomes a who's-who of future superhero movies.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Alligator Assortment - 12 per pack

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Alligator Assortment - 12 per pack by SmallToys
5.0 out of 5 stars Cheaper than the Visejaw Crocodile, June 16, 2015
Inspired by my success with giant spiders, I picked up a pack of party favor alligators to fill the role of packs of crocodiles and alligators in my Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons game. Crocodiles are large sized, so the Visejaw Crocodile is the nearest approximation at $8 each. Or you could just buy this 12-pack of crocodiles for eight bucks (including shipping).

The crocodiles, which you can buy from Amazon here, come in three poses: crocodile, crocodile with its mouth open, and alligator. You can tell the difference because the alligator has a pointed snout.

Like the giant spiders, you can get 12 of these critters for cheap or pay the same price for just one. Overall I was happy with how they turned out.

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: ~ 12 ~ Spiders ~ Approx. 2 Inch Plastic ~ New ~ Science, Insects, Halloween Table Sprinkles

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

~ 12 ~ Spiders ~ Approx. 2 Inch Plastic ~ New ~ Science, Insects, Halloween Table Sprinkles by Rhode Island Novelty
5.0 out of 5 stars Cheaper than $264!, June 16, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
One of the changes of the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is that there is no longer a sliding scale for certain common monsters like monstrous spiders. They have been returned to their "giant" status, and you can't very well have a giant spider that's tiny-sized, can you? So now the only kind of giant spider is a large-sized spider, which made a lot of miniatures useless. A large monstrous spider miniature retails for $22 with shipping included. But I'm here to tell you that you can have 12 giant spiders for under five bucks.

It doesn't help that giant spiders tend to come in packs. For the moment I'm leaving aside the medium-sized wolf spiders because I have plenty of those that fit the bill (specifically, the deathjump spider from D&D miniatures).

The answer: party favors. Party favors are surprisingly well-sculpted and colorfully painted. I ordered them for $4.49 and free shipping thanks to Amazon prime (you can order yours here). What you get is four different types of spiders, three of each: the flat-thorax huntsman spider, the hairy house spider, the smooth black widow spider, and the brown recluse. Mind you, I had to interpret what these spiders were meant to represent by the shape of each sculpt, so this list isn't necessarily accurate. I based them all first and then painted them according to the type of spider I thought they should represent.

Did it work? 12 giant spiders (four types, three each) would normally cost me $264 in D&D miniatures or even Reaper Bones' giant spider at $6 (shipping included). Not bad for a toy!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Slimes (2) Dark Heaven Legends Miniature

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Slimes (2) Dark Heaven Legends Miniature by Reaper
5.0 out of 5 stars Large slimes, but no gray ooze, June 14, 2015
In the adventure The Battle of Emridy Meadows there's a possibility of encountering a gray ooze. I don't know what it is about Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, but gray oozes show up a lot. I bought the gelatinous cube option for the Reaper Bones II Kickstarter and got two slimes in the bargain. There's just one problem: gray oozes are medium size and these two slimes are large.

It occurred to me that the translucent slimes are best served by the color beneath them. Since the other two large notable oozes in D&D are the ochre jelly and black pudding, I just painted the bottom of each (in the case of the black pudding, this wasn't even necessary since it's a black base). Then I used a black wash for the black pudding and a yellow wash for the ochre jelly. To pick up the detail of the sculpts, I used a drybrush (gray for the black pudding, flesh color for the ochre jelly).

Both oozes still pick up the light behind them and are translucent enough to seem gelatinous. The ochre jelly in particular is striking. There's an art to the type of ooze the sculpt represents. Ochre jelly, for example, can compress itself to squeeze through an opening, while black puddings are more or less giant blobs. The slimmer ooze fits the ochre jelly better.

These sculpts are perfect for what they represent. But we still need a good medium-sized gray ooze.

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Gnoll Warrior - Dark Heaven Bones Miniature

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Gnoll Warrior - Dark Heaven Bones Miniature by Reaper
4.0 out of 5 stars More werewolf than hyena, June 14, 2015
When my campaign needed a lot of gnolls I quickly realized that I wasn't going to have enough gnolls to fill out a group of 12. Fortunately I hadn't yet opened my Kickstarter box of Reaper Bones II and it turned out there were no less than eight gnolls included in the set. This review covers the four gnoll warriors.

To begin with, there seems to be some disagreement as to what a gnoll is. This is a problem that has plagued Dungeons & Dragons since the introduction of the gnoll. Originally, gnolls were inspired by the gnole from Lord Dunsany's The Book of wonder: How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles. The accompanying artwork makes them look like little hairy black beasts. The Original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set characterized them as a cross between gnomes and trolls who are "otherwise similar to hobgoblins." Advanced Dungeons & Dragons described them as hyena-men.

Now, there's a lot of misunderstanding as to what a hyena is, and this has led to confusion on what a gnoll is. Hyenas are not, in fact, related to wolves. They actually have more in common with cats. They're fascinating weird creatures who could perhaps be best described as cats that pretend to be dogs. As a result, nobody's entirely sure how to sculpt a gnoll, which started out as diminutive hyena monsters and have since transformed into hulking werewolf types.

Tre Manor's gnoll warriors are the pinnacle of their evolution into huge killing machines. They wield a spike flail in one hand, a spiked shield in another, with a spiked gauntlet on the flail-wielding hand. Did I mention they're fond of spikes? The gnoll warrior also sports a fearsome-looking sagittal crest common to striped hyenas. The tail is bushy, also like a striped hyena.

I wanted these gnolls to stand out as a group but also wanted them to have enough in common with the other gnoll miniatures I have (which all seem to be colored a brownish-red), so I painted them a muddy yellow common to the spotted hyena and then gave them a brown wash over everything. Gnolls, I assume, are dirty, and their equipment should reflect that.

The wide stance of all of the gnoll sculpts may be an issue for some. These sculpts are big; too big to fit on a one-inch round base. They do fit diagonally in a one-inch square however. Also, the spiked flail is usually associated with priests of Yeenoghua specifically, so their inclusion in nearly every gnoll sculpt may also make them unsuitable as regular troops. That said, this is a handsome sculpt that worked out well for my gnoll horde.

Michael J. Tresca gave 3 stars to: Boneflail Gnoll Cleric

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Boneflail Gnoll Cleric by Reaper
3.0 out of 5 stars What it says on the tin, June 14, 2015
This review is from: Boneflail Gnoll Cleric (Toy)
The adventure, Battle of Emridy Meadows, features a crusade against Gnaragg the Dog King. Gnaragg is fond of using a flail, so Boneflail was a suitable substitute...who is pretty much what it says on the tin.

Boneflail likes bones: a bull skull covers his groin, a fanged skull covers his right shoulder, and there are a variety of bones stitched into his belt, wrist bands, and bandolier. To Boneflail, every piece of hide is better with bone.

Boneflail also likes his flail. A little too much, actually as the head of the flail seems attached to his saggital crest. It's an easy fix to snip it, but a curious oversight in the mold that wasn't carried over to the gnoll warriors, who also carry flails. More to the point, Boneflail was awesome when he first debuted -- he held a flail as his right as a cleric -- but now that it seems every gnoll wields a flail he's not quite so special.
Boneflail also covered his wooden shield with hide, so he gets points for creativity. Unfortunately, standing next to the gnoll warriors with their spiked shields, he looks like a bit of a wuss.

One interesting point about Boneflail is that sculptor Tre Manor must have gotten bored with the typical werewolf-like posture of gnolls and gave
Boneflail the tail of a spotted hyena, with a "pompom"-like appearance.

This is one of those sculpts that on its own would be great, but next the other gnoll warriors he just looks like a poor imitation, and certainly not a powerful cleric.

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Bloodmane, Gnoll Champion

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Bloodmane, Gnoll Champion by Reaper
4.0 out of 5 stars Fits right in with any gnoll group, June 14, 2015
This review is from: Bloodmane, Gnoll Champion (Toy)
As part of The Battle of Emridy Meadows adventure, our heroes go after Gnaragg the Dog King. They first come across his consort, Norghu, who wields a glaive. Bloodmane, the Gnoll Champion, was a viable miniature.

Bloodmane's not all that original; he's basically a copy of the gnoll warrior, right down to the same spiked shield they use. It's interesting to note his spiked shield has three arm straps instead of two; you can actually see the additional strap behind the arm of the gnoll warriors. Bloodmane's a little different because he wears the skulls of three of his enemies (humanoids) at his hip, has a curved dagger at his hip, and wields an axe and...that's about it.

This is the sculpt I would have preferred to be the typical gnoll warrior. His armament is a little more traditional and, if he wasn't wearing the dagger and skulls, would fit right in with any other gnoll group.

Michael J. Tresca gave 2 stars to: WF

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

WF: Toghra the Despolier, Gnoll Warlord by Reaper
2.0 out of 5 stars More shaman than warlord, June 14, 2015
In The Battle of Emridy Meadows adventure, the PCs fight Gnarrag the Dog King (who ironically, rides a displacer beast, but I digress). Theoretically, this sculpt is perfect to depict him. In practice, I thought Toghra was actually a shaman, not a gnoll warlord.

I'm guessing the idea is that Toghra is a taskmaster of sorts who whips his charges into submission. That thing in one hand is supposed to be a whip, but it looks more like a ceremonial flail to me. He's got a lot of angry wooden faces carved into his armor and he seems to be wearing a kind of tunic that's open down to his navel. His polearm is intricately carved and made of bone, topped by some sort of beetle. In short, Tohgra's attire looks like he made it himself.

One of the problems may be that Tres Manor sculpted the other figures, but Jason Wiebe sculpted Toghra. The hulking menace the other sculpts project just isn't in Toghra's appearance.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. But as a warlord, this figure simply doesn't work. He looks less menacing and more like he's chanting some sort of prayer. As a gnoll shaman this sculpt will do fine. But for a warlord, you're better off using the gnoll warrior.

Michael J. Tresca gave 3 stars to: Reaper Miniatures 77159 Bones - Ghast

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Reaper Miniatures 77159 Bones - Ghast by Reaper
3.0 out of 5 stars Like zombies and ghouls and wights, only a ghast, June 14, 2015
The Battle of Emridy Meadows features seven ghouls in Gnarrag the Dog King's den, which is a little strange. Also, who has seven ghouls? Well now I have four thanks to the Reaper Bones II Kickstarter.

Gnolls as hyena intersects with ghouls in a curious way. H.P. Lovecraft's ghouls had a lot of canine-like features and hyenas have been (incorrectly) listed as scavengers and carrion-eaters. This may be why the two are associated with each other through their demonic deity, Yeenoghu. D&D ghouls don't look much like the ghouls of Lovecraft's stories -- a Lovecraftian ghoul isn't just a scavenging reanimated corpse but a full transformation into a new species -- and the hyena heritage of the gnolls fits the bill nicely.

Ghasts are another thing entirely. Lovecraft referenced them in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath as looking nothing like ghouls. Vulnerable to sunlight, they hop around like kangaroos on hoofed feet and tear apart their prey. Although they have a strong sense of smell, they don't actually reek so bad that it would incapacitate someone. D&D took some strange liberties with them. But that's okay, because ghasts and ghouls look similar.

One of these ghast sculpts made an appearance as a minion of the vampire queen in the first Reaper Bones Kickstarter as a Necropolis Ghast, so that brings my ghoul count up to five. However, the sculpt has a lot in common with the zombie sculpt from Dungeon Command, which happens to be the exact sculpt as the terror wight from the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures game. Their appearance and posture is nearly identical with the exception that the ghast sculpt has no hair.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 3 stars to: Tomorrowland [HD]

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Tomorrowland [HD] Amazon Instant Video ~ George Clooney
3.0 out of 5 stars Disney's most murder-iest movie about idealism to date, May 29, 2015
There's a moment in "Tomorrowland" where grown-up cynic Frank Walker (George Clooney) pops the optimistic bubble of his spunky sidekick Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) by explaining that the virtual reality simulation of a utopian techno-future she witnessed is actually just a commercial -- it's a sanitized version of the much grittier real thing. It's a meta statement that could just as easily apply to the movie itself.

At heart, director Brad Bird wants you to know that somewhere along the way Americans stopped dreaming. The central conceit of the film was inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson's "We Stopped Dreaming." Tyson's argument is that the defunding of NASA is the destruction of our dreams, paralleled in the film by Casey's battle to keep her Cape Canaveral from being taken apart by sabotaging the cranes.

The film educates us on how Disneyland and Disney World's are descendants of World's Fairs -- both "It's a Small World" and the "Carousel of Progress" debuted at the 1960s World's Fair first, with Epcot being perhaps the best realization of the Fairs' dreams of international peace. In a flashback that kicks of the film with a bang, a younger more idealistic Frank (Thomas Robinson) lugs his homemade jetpack to an inventor competition at the "Carousel of Progress." Frank is sharply rejected by David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but then a perky British pixie named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives Frank a pin that turns the "It's a Small World" ride into a dimension hopping gate to Tomorrowland itself.

Daniel H. Wilson's book, Where's My Jetpack? perfectly sums up the disappointment so many of us have in the future we were promised but was never realized, and "Tomorrowland" dives right into the topic by having young Frank's jetpack be the key to his future survival. But there's a darker plot here that lurks in the background: who, exactly, promised us this future?

It was NASA and the press, bolstered by a public willing to believe. The Astronaut's Wives Club by Lily Koppel (soon to be a TV show on ABC) demonstrates how the press lapped up everything NASA gave them and in turn covered up all the flaws that made astronauts human beings -- including their wives. To justify the enormous cost of NASA's space race against the Russians, the technology had to be literally brought down to Earth. So jet packs weren't just for astronauts, they were for businessmen trying to get to work. Convenient food dispensers weren't just for astronauts, the harried housewife could use it to make her dinner in no time flat. Your tax dollars at work!

Bird and co-writer Damon Lindedlof try to play the idealism straight, but their adult cynicism can't resist turning the plot into something ripped from a Terminator movie in which androids tear each other's heads off and vaporize police officers. If you're bringing young children, be warned -- "Tomorrowland" harbors kids' ideas in a decidedly adult film.

SPOILERLAND: This dichotomy is best summed up in Frank and Athena's relationship, .which is pure when they're kids and borderline squicky when it's an adult Frank trying desperately to not talk about the fact he's in love with a preteen girl robot. "Tomorrowland" spirals from there into Illuminati-style cabals, the Eiffel Tower, dubious science (drinking a Coke restores blood sugar you guys!), and more bad guy murdering. This has to be the most muderer-iest Disney movie about idealism to date.

My kids weren't phased by the violence; my son was more concerned about how much trouble Casey would get into with her soon-to-be-laid-off NASA engineer dad (Tim McGraw). Tomorrowland's argument amounts to a Tinkerbell-style "we just all need to believe" argument cloaked in science and wonder, which left me feeling a little flat. As GE's "Invention Donkey" commercial explains when a millennial makes a wish to power the planet:

"First, start planning this years ago. Build a massive network of think tanks, research and testing facilities. Hire brilliant people from all different arts and sciences. Pile on the PhDs. Turn garbage into power. Run cities on jet engine technology. And oh yeah, create data-crunching windmills from the future. And then...POOF! It's done!"

As the donkey says, it ain't that simple folks.

”Tomorrowland" threatens the apocalypse if we don' figure it out. And yet despite the reductive argument the last few minutes of the movie are the very best. Finally we get a glimpse of the future as it is: practical applications, not world-spanning; implemented by the will of the people, not the government selling us on it; happening now, not futuristic promises decades hence. It's almost enough to make you believe there's hope for the future...but not enough to make up for the torturous path "Tomorrowland" takes to get us there.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 3 stars to: Night at the Museum

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb [Blu-ray] Blu-ray ~ Robin Williams

3.0 out of 5 stars A bittersweet farewell, February 23, 2015

When I first saw "Night at the Museum" I thought it was stupid fun. That was eight years ago, if you can believe it, and the trilogy finally comes to a close with this final installment. As the passing of two key cast members demonstrates, the show really is over -- a decidedly adult conclusion to a kid-friendly franchise.

Who hasn't thought about museums coming to life? It was only in the past decade, when the special effects could keep up with our imaginations, that the concept was brought to the screen in glorious (and often cheesy) CGI. And who better to shepherd a franchise than Ben Stiller as Larry Daley, channeling his bitter snark into a family-friendly loser who is just trying to raise his kid right.

If you watch the first movie again...well, don't, because then you'll start to notice things -- the most egregious being the relentless characterization of Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) as spouting gibberish. But never you mind, because "Secret of the Tomb" is now refined family fare. The third part of the trilogy has filed off the sharp edges so that there's less monkey slapping and more hugging and kissing.

To wit, the tablet of Ahkmenrah, responsible for animating all of the exhibits in the Museum of Natural History, is beginning to corrode. During a special exhibition in which the exhibits are "brought to life" (unbeknownst to the wealthy guests in attendance, who think they are merely special effects) the animating magic of the tablet goes haywire and the animated creatures go nuts, ruining the museum and leading to Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) getting canned. The whole party -- literally, the museum's exhibits seem to party every night -- comes to an abrupt end.

But fear not! One flashback and some exposition later, we learn that former villain from the first film Cecil Fredericks (Dick Van Dyke, along with Bill Cobbs and recently passed Mickey Rooney ) is the link to the tablet's past. Fredericks directs Larry to the British Museum, where Ahkmenrah's parents (Ben Kingsley and Anjali Jay) hold the secret to restoring the tablet to its former glory. This is of course an opportunity to animate and explore a whole new museum filled with its own quirks and wonders.

As with all of the "Night at the Museum" movies, there are always jokes that just go on too long. Rebel Wilson as Tilly, the British security guard equivalent of Larry, spends far too much screen time desperately trying to be funny with nothing to do. There's an awkward thread about fathers and sons -- Larry's son Nicky wants to be a DJ instead of go to college -- that's supposed to parallel later events in the film but doesn't quite succeed. And Stiller's brand of humor isn't for everybody.

But there's some brilliant moments too, filled with action, intrigue, and a lot of coming-of-age hokum. The Neanderthal Laa that was modeled to look like Larry is an inspired joke and Sir Lancelot's (Dan Stevens) epic quest is heart wrenching when his hubris finally comes to grips with reality. Indeed, "Secret of the Tomb" embraces death, even if it's only because some gold prop started to corrode.

In what can only be described as a bittersweet finale, Robin Williams as Theodore Roosevelt says goodbye to...well, to everything. Adults wept in the theater while kids wondered what the heck was going on. And suddenly what was a trifle of a kids film filled with stories about the wonders of history has become a sharp lesson about letting go of the past.

Does this make the film better? Will people watching it years later still feel the same? Probably not. But for now, in the present, everything is thrown in sharp relief by the last line ever spoken by Robin Williams as a wax figure in the form of Teddy Roosevelt:

"Smile, my boy. It's sunrise."

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: You're Next

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

You're Next DVD ~ Sharni Vinson

4.0 out of 5 stars The cure for what ails jaded horror fans, February 23, 2015

This review is from: You're Next (DVD)

It's easy to get jaded if you're a fan of horror films. We've seen it all before: Slasher kills girl's family, girl meets slasher, slasher dies only to be resurrected in a sequel. "You're Next" is a refreshing twist on the tired slasher tropes.

The first sign that "You're Next" is different is in how director Adam Wingard treats his characters. Five minutes in, we are invited to judge a relationship without understanding what's going on: an older man and a much younger woman having sex. That early scene communicates volumes. Our camera perspective peering into the bedroom makes their lovemaking look more like violence. The girl is clearly unsatisfied. Padding out of the room while her lover takes a shower, she sets up a five-disc CD player of music on repeat that will be integral to the rest of the film. Then she dies.

As our protagonists enter the next scene, driving up to a house nearby ad offhandedly explaining that the double homicide we just witnessed was a professor who left his wife for a college student. Do we feel better about their deaths as a result of their moral transgressions? While that question bounces around, we discover that our protagonists Crispian (A.J. Bowen) and Erin (Sharni Vinson) are in a similar relationship. Do they deserve to die too?

The rest of the film is a running battle between three men in masks wielding crossbows and a WASPy family reunion gone sour. Erin and Crispian don't know each other that well, and the film cleverly juxtaposes the horrors of navigating a boyfriend's family with a slasher film. There's the frail mother, the overbearing father, the little sister who battles for attention, and the bullying older brother who is jealous of everyone else's happiness. All of these family members come with their respective spouses, who are equally clueless and disengaged. All the non-family members (Erin included) also look curiously fake -- Erin and Zee (Wendy Glenn) look like they're wearing wigs. In "You're Next" the killers aren't the only ones wearing masks.

As the assault progresses, we get an explanation for why the bad guys do what they do, and "You're Next" gleefully wallows in the utter depravity of its villains. It throws the sins of the family in stark relief -- they're bad, but they're not murderers. Or are they?

Erin certainly is. In a refreshing twist, we discover that Erin is no shrinking violet. She uses survival tactics worthy of any prepper compound. There's something viscerally satisfying about her increasingly ferocious counterattack as each character's morals (or lack thereof) are brutally unmasked.

"You're Next" is filled with plot holes in service to the genre. Nobody seems to have any guns. The killers can barely see thanks to their ridiculous masks and they refuse to take them off when anonymity is no longer an issue. And the murder plot is flimsy at best. But "You're Next" isn't about realism. It's about really, really hating your family. If you can't find the humor in that, this movie may not be right for you.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Girl (Album Version)

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Girl (Album Version) Beck MP3 Music

5.0 out of 5 stars The meaning behind the song, February 21, 2015

This review is from: Girl (Album Version) (MP3 Music)

Just discovered Beck's fabulous "Girl" (I know, it takes me years to discover songs). I've seen a lot of controversy over whether this is a love song, or a serial killer's internal monologue, and a lot of theories in between. Here's what I think:

I saw her, yeah I saw her with her black tongue tied

Round the roses

Fist pounding on a vending machine

Toy diamond ring stuck on her finger

With a noose she can hang from the sun

And put it out with her dark sunglasses

The narrator sees a girl (noticably not a woman) pounding on a vending machine. She has a diamond ring on her finger, which he mocks, calling it a toy. Her marriage, it's clear, is something she's not mature enough to understand. He also feels she's either self-destructive of hopelessly naieve, and that although she wears dark sunglasses (cause she's that cool), she actually has a huge ego. Her ego's big enough that if she were to hang herself, she'd block the sun out. She's obviously into goth-type attitude/attire, as evidenced by her "black tongue tied" and "dark sunglasses." Judging from the tongue-tied, I'd guess she's a theater major or English major fond of spouting epithets that don't make her sound any smarter.

Walking crooked down the beach

She spits on the sand where their bones are bleaching

And I know I'm gonna steal her eye

As she walks down the beach in a crooked line, a line that most people walk straight (and thus representative of her winding, indecisive life), she spits. Again, not a nice image for an object of affection, but more importantly she doesn't even know what's she spits on. Alternately, she's too oblivious to notice the bones of the creatures on the beach, as she's so wrapped up in herself.

She doesn't even know what's wrong

And I know I'm gonna make her die

Take her where her soul belongs

And I know I'm gonna steal her eye

Nothing that I wouldn't try

So "gonna make her die" -- does that mean Beck wants to kill this poor girl?

I doubt it. It's more likely he's going to break her heart. He feels he's a real man, better to bring this girl into a real relationship than the stupid marriage she's locked into. He's been watching her all this time and plans to grab her attention ("steal her eye") and is quite determined to do it.

Hey, My...girl

Hey, My...girl

The refrain is the real crux of the song, and Beck knows it. On his own site he blurred the lyrics. Sure it sounds like sun-eyed girl. Or cyanide girl. Of course, both are right. Despite her goth attire, the girl is hopelessly naieve (sun-eyed). But she's also hopelessly self-destructive as a result of that toy diamond ring. So if someone's going to kill her foolish spirit, Beck's the one to do it...or at least imagining he could do it.

I saw her, yeah I saw her with her hands tied back

And her rags were burning

Crawling out from a landfilled life

Scrawling her name upon the ceiling

We move forward in time. Now see the girl again. Her hands are tied (literally, she doesn't know what to do now), her clothes are a mess. She's now desperate to prove she has value after the wreck of her marriage ("land-filled life"), as so many of us wish to "scrawl our names" -- but she's scrawling it on the ceiling, not the floor. If she's outside, this is a hopelessly futile gesture. If she's inside, it still denotes her naieve outlook of looking up instead of down at the landfill she just crawled out of. Always up and onwards!

Throw a coin in a fountain of dust

White noise, her ears are ringing

She's still taking stupid chances, maybe playing the lottery -- she throws bad money after good by tossing a coin in a fountain, but it's a dusty fountain (traditionally tossing a coin in a fountain is lucky). She's also not listening. She hears white noise instead of any actual advice. So who's next great hope for this hopeless girl? Beck, of course.

Got a ticket for a midnight hanging

Throw a bullet from a freight train leaving

And I know I'm gonna steal her eye

She doesn't even know what's wrong

And I know I'm gonna make her die

Take her where her soul belongs

And I know I'm gonna steal her eye

Nothing that I would not try

The ultimately irony here is that Beck probably caused the dissolution of her marriage. And now he's going to tell her he's breaking up with her too. He's got a ticket to tell her, and then get the hell out of there fast -- throwing a bullet from a train, which is both fast and lethal (to her hopes and dreams).

This is, in my opinion, a rather morose perspective on a relationship; an extremely jaded view on a relatoinship with an immature girl who's trying to be a grown-up but doesn't have the emotional maturity to handle it. And Beck is comforting himself, perhaps, by teaching her an important, painful life lesson that her marriage was never of any value in the first place.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Video Game Storytelling

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques by Evan Skolnick

5.0 out of 5 stars For game designers in any medium, January 24, 2015

At first blush you might think Evan Skolnick's Video Game Storytelling isn't relevant to role-playing games. I've written at length about the challenges video games face in crafting a good story, something which the nascent industry still struggles with. As a result, video games often repeat the mistakes learned by tabletop board and role-playing games.

This is the book I was hoping Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter would be -- an explanation of the flaws in video games and a clear path as to how to fix it. Skolnick isn't a journalist or "artiste" visiting the video game world and espousing his opinions about what's wrong with it; he's a narrative designer in the trenches battling for respect and trying to keep games from completely bombing. In some ways it's sad this book had to be written at all.

The book is divided into two parts, Basic Training and In the Trenches. After outlining in Basic Training the basics of a three-act structure (Setup, Confrontation, Resolution), Skolnick demonstrates how this narrative concept can be applied to a game's structure. Of particular relevance is his discussion of the Monomyth.

The Monomyth was first outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The archetypes are well known to gamers everywhere: Hero, Herald (who announces the conflict), Mentor, Shapeshifter (a character who changes allegiance at a critical moment), and of course the Villain. There's also the Story Structure, which is familiar to fans of "Star Wars" and "The Matrix":

1. The Ordinary World: An introduction to what passes as "normal" in the protagonist's life.


3. The Call to Adventure: The hero faces the possibility of a quest...


5. Refusal of the Call: But refuses to do it.


7. Meeting with the Mentor: He meets a mentor, a character who convinces him to resume the quest.


9. Crossing the First Threshold: The journey begins and the hero leaves the normalcy of home.


11. Tests, Allies, Enemies: This is the meat of the adventure -- challenges, fights, puzzles, etc.


13. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero ventures into enemy territory.


15. The Supreme Ordeal: Things get bad; the hero is sorely tested.


17. Reward: The hero retrieves the item he needs to be successful, but he's not done yet...


19. The Road Back: He must return with it, enemies hot on his heels.


21. Resurrection: This is the moment in every story where things look their worst.


23. Return with the Elixir: The finale, with everyone getting their just rewards, hero and villain alike.


Skolnick goes well beyond the Hero's Journey into villain and hero motivations and narrative techniques, like how to not info-dump massive exposition on characters. There are also critical chapters on dialogue and believability. It's this kind of clear-headed approach to telling a good story that is often lacking in tabletop adventures.

The second half of the book covers what most tabletop gamers have long suspected: game designers get no respect. Or worse, sometimes there's nobody in charge of storytelling at all!

I've often spoken about how, bored with a game, my character shifts from following the Monomyth to just murdering everything -- a stark example of ludonarrative dissonance. Skolnick's frustration with the industry seeps throughout this part of the book as he reinforces the importance of achieving "ludonarrative harmony," the player aligned with the game character's intent.

This is an important work, bridging the storytelling we know so well from movies and books with the gaming tropes we've come to mock. It's an excellent reference for any game designer in any medium.