Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself “Star Lord” after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos’ minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel’s cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they’re not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community‘s Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana’s comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista’s bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers
Disney/Marvel’s latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill’s piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they’re recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora’s blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who’ll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn’s love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy‘s light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous “Easter eggs,” or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I’m glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and ’80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill’s mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today’s visceral reactions.

Rating: I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel’s savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

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Catching up: Hercules 2014 review

Where did the time go? It seems like only yesterday that I was planning to blog about the then-current genre television season, the various books and comics I’ve been reading, the convention scene, and upcoming movies and tabletop RPGs.

Granted, I’ve been busy with work, weekly games, and seasonal festivals, but before they all blur together in memory, let me review some recent films.

On Friday, 25 July 2014, I met Jason E.R. and his son Eric for dinner at Fuddrucker’s and an IMAX 3-D showing of Hercules. We enjoyed this sword-and-sandals movie, which starred Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.

Hercules 2014
Mighty heroes

Plot: Since I had read the Radical Comics miniseries this movie was based on, I wasn’t surprised that the 12 labors of Herakles weren’t as prominent as in the trailers. In fact, the plot takes the tack that the labors were exaggerated tales of a non-magical band of adventurers.

In this respect, I’d compare 2014’s Hercules with the 2004 King Arthur, but with more of a sense of humor. Johnson already proved a worthy successor to Conan: the Barbarian‘s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hercules: the Legendary Adventures/Kull the Conqueror‘s Kevin Sorbo in Scorpion King.

The Rock’s shaky computer-animated avatar in The Mummy Returns was one of the few weak spots in that pulp adventure flick. I’d also compare Hercules favorably with the over-the-top 300: Rise of an Empire (but if you like Frank Miller, just wait for Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For). I’d even argue that Hercules was more faithful in spirit, if not in specifics, to its source material than Jason Momoa’s Conan or the dour Man of Steel.

Cast: Even if Hercules script is occasionally weak or predictable, Johnson is ably supported by Ian McShane as fatalist mystic Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as mercenary Autolycus, and John Hurt as aged Lord Cotys. Joseph Fiennes follows in his brother’s footsteps (Ralph was Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise) as the scheming King Eurystheus.

The younger actors are also decent, including Askel Hennie as traumatized Viking Tydeus (it’s fantasy, don’t sweat it), Reece Ritchie as Hercules’ kinsman and storyteller Iolaus, and Ingrid Bolso Berdal as the Amazonian Atalanta. The White Queen‘s Rebecca Ferguson is Princess Ergenia, and model Irina Shayk is Hercules’ wife Megara. Some viewers will recognize character names from Greek mythology, TV’s Legendary Adventures, or even the Disney animated musical, but this is a different take on most of them.

Direction/cinematography: It’s too bad that years of computer-assisted effects have left us jaded to visions of monsters, large armies maneuvering on battlefields, and feats of strength and acrobatics. The action scenes in Hercules were generally well choreographed, and the movie was well paced.

I liked the glimpses of mythical beasts, the use of phalanx and archers on chariots, and even the cheesier moments of Hercules in chains. The Steve Reeves and Ray Harryhausen classics have nothing to worry about, but it’s still nice to see a deconstruction that doesn’t completely tear down fun, larger-than-life spectacle.

Rating: Jason, Eric, Byron V.O., and I all liked Hercules more than fellow role-player Rich C.G. I’d give Hercules a 7.5 out of 10, a solid “B,” or four out of five stars. This is the sort of movie I’d classify as a “gamer flick,” with an entertaining ensemble of misfits doing heroic deeds but not necessarily aspiring to subgenre greatness.

I’ve heard that this movie was better than the other Hercules film of earlier this year. Although Luc Besson and Scarlett Johannson’s Lucy (more on that later) beat Hercules at the box office, I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel featuring Johnson and that first superhero team, Jason and the Argonauts. Now, who to cast?

Fun and games in June and July 2014

As usual, the start of summer has been busy. On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I went to the Compleat Strategist in Boston for Free RPG Day. We then met role-players Beruk A., Rich C.G., and some of Rich’s friends at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass.

I picked up free fantasy supplements for Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Pathfinder, as well as quickstarters for the superhero Valiant Universe and cyberpunk/fantasy Shadowrun. Clearly, I’m still in a retro-clone, old-school Renaissance (OSR) frame of mind.

Other recent acquisitions include Arrows of Indra, Celestial Empire, and the FATE (Core) Freeport Companion, all of which should be useful for my long-running “Vanished Lands” campaign, which is currently using D20/FATE house rules.

As you may have seen by now, I ran four games in one week! After the latest Creation Star Trek convention in Boston (more on that later), I ran my usual “Vanished Lands: A New Dawn” telecom team on Sunday, June 22. The Player Characters encountered monsters while scouting an army approaching the city of Sogewa.

On Monday, June 23, the “Vanished Lands: Vistel’s Expedition” face-to-face group continued its adventures. That adventuring party has traveled through time to free some slaves.

Byron V.O., an alumnus of the Boston-area groups who now lives in St. Louis and participates in “A New Dawn” via Skype, stayed with Janice and me after a business trip back east. On Friday, June 27, I ran an extra “Vistel’s Expedition” session, and Byron and I were pleased at the strong turnout.

Byron V.O.'s June 2014 visit
“Vistel’s Expedition,” summer 2014

On Saturday, June 28, I ran “Star Trek: Restoration,” and it was nice to host a smaller group for the first time since moving from Needham to Waltham, Mass. The crew of the U.S.S. Rotha was involved in a tense standoff with Romulan warbirds!

After that afternoon session, we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Josh C. for a solid Italian dinner at Fiorella’s in Newton. Byron, who is always a good houseguest and fun gaming companion, left on Sunday, June 29.

On Monday, June 30, Josh ran a one-shot of Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, using FATE Core (reminding me of what I like and what I’d tweak). That wuxia (Asian-style fantasy) scenario was among the one-shots and miniseries my groups have tried out each summer in between longer campaigns.

Pregenerated P.C.s for “Hammer, Don’t Touch This!” — Josh C.’s Tianxia one-shot at Brian W.’s home in Newton, Mass.:

  • Ma Wei Sheng” [Gene D.]-male eastern human, wandering nobleman, taciturn warrior determined to get out from his family’s shadow and make a name for himself
  • Smiling Ox” [Beruk A.]-male human, master of the Demon Hammer, boastful brute with large appetites and a heart of gold
  • Sister Chuntao” [Brian W.]-female human, Bodhist nun and former thief, conscious of checkered past and seeking harmony, with monkey Sun
  • Jasmina” [Sara F.]-female tiger, talking animal with scars and a strong sense of justice
  • Han ‘Dragon Dog’ Ping” [Bruce K.]-male human, enthusiastic young adventurer and working-class hero
  • Yee Wong” [Rich C.G.]-male human, old Daoist wizard, immortal but absent-minded and irascible alchemist
  • Wolf-Eyed Yue” [Brian S.]-female human, wild woman and member of the secret White Widow sect devoted to helping women defend themselves

The Boston-area and telecom games took a break around the Independence Day weekend, during which Janice and I hosted one of our nieces. During the latest “JasonCon” on Monday, July 7, Jason E.R. (whose “Glassworks: the Devil’s Den” superhero scenario using Icons: Great Power recently ended) graciously hosted Rich’s School Daze, a narrative, rules-light game typically focusing on high school archetypes.

P.C.s for Rich C.G.’s third School Daze session, held in Reading, Mass.:

  • Emo Wallach” [Gene D.]-male human goth, junior at Trowbridge High School specializing in art and comfortable in dank spaces; discovered a dead dog and classmate during a stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake; later a friend of “Reasonable Squid” reporter Cynthia Hoskins
  • Chuck Taylor” [Jason E.R.]-male human jock, Trowbridge senior and friend of “Fighting Krakens” water polo Coach Bronkowski and his bullying son Murphy, helped defeat a homicidal alien with surprise tire-iron attacks; after a change of heart, became a nerd defender
  • Brandon Shaw” [Bruce K.]-male human, shop yank and Trowbridge junior, prone to bad humor; fancies himself a ladies’ man and good with an axe in a scrap
  • Alan Morris” [Brian S.]-male human Trowbridge senior and budding filmmaker; friend of Henry Lee Jackson, an old hermit with a hook hand; recorded attack by assistant camp leader “Ms. Bellum,” who was actually a mantis-like alien; dating Chuck’s younger sister Tracy
  • Feskilado ‘Fesky’ Mepeselph” [Erik R.]-male human Trowbridge senior, science and clank/electronics expert; snuck pet dogs and cat into camp; later found beheaded, and cat Severus was revealed as an alien guardian

I expect “A New Dawn” to resume this coming Sunday, July 13, and Bruce K. will begin his “Eberron/Pathfinder: Reign of Winter” miniseries next Monday. So many games, so little time!

In related news, the Dungeons & Dragons (5e/”Next”) Basic Rules have been released. While there are no earth-shattering revelations, especially after a lengthy playtest period, I’m pleased that Wizards of the Coast released this as a free PDF.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, this looks closer to what I would have preferred for D&D4e, with a mix of AD&D2 style and D&D3.5/D20/4e rules. We’ll still have to wait and see whether D&D5e will tempt role-players away from Pathfinder, OSR, and various indie systems.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the recently renovated AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the computer-animated fantasy sequel, which had character development and visuals that were at least equal to those in James Cameron’s Avatar or several recent Disney/Pixar films.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Animated fantasy sequel

Plot: As with most sequels, viewers who skipped the first How to Train Your Dragon won’t appreciate the new movie as fully as they might. Loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s books, the movies (and the Nickelodeon TV series) focus on Hiccup, a scrawny Viking who breaks with tradition in learning to ride dragons rather than fight them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup’s hometown of Berk has learned to coexist with dragons, and we see a quidditch-like race involving his friends.

Restless Hiccup and his Night Fury steed Toothless explore ever farther from his home island and finds his long-lost mother (already “spoiled” in trailers), as well as ruthless pirates who share his gift for communicating with flying reptiles. As in the first movie, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

Cast: Jay Baruchel returns as a slightly more mature Hiccup, with Gerard Butler as his gruff father and chieftain, Stoick. Cate Blanchett, who hasn’t gotten to interact directly with monsters as Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, brings weariness and hope to Hiccup’s mother Valka.

Other returning voice actors include Craig Ferguson as Stoick’s counselor Gobber, America Ferrera as the winsome Astrid, and Jonah Hill as obnoxious Snotlout.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is Fishlegs, who vies with Snotlout for Ruffnut’s (Kristen Wiig) attentions while her twin Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) looks on and scoffs. The dynamics among Hiccup’s family and friends are more fully explored in the television show, but there are many nods to them in the movie.

Newcomers include Djimon Hounsou as the pirate Drago and Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harrington as the swashbuckling Eret, who captures Ruffnut’s eye during one of several narrow escapes from the pirates. Everyone is well-cast in their roles.

Direction: Dean DeBlois, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does a good job of building up the action while also providing some character moments. Any lack of originality in the story is more than made up for by the appealing characters, heartfelt story, and strong visual designs. (No, I haven’t yet seen Frozen, but understand it’s one of Disney’s better recent efforts.)

Cinematography: Although I didn’t see How to Train Your Dragon 2 in 3-D, the regular visual effects have continued to improve, with human skin, dragon scales, choppy seas, and fire all spectacularly rendered.

Hiccup’s gliding scenes with Toothless early in the movie are particularly good, and even though the large-scale battles toward the end are familiar to fantasy fan, they manage not to completely overwhelm the viewer.

Soundtrack: The musical score echoes the themes from the first movie and the TV series, and it properly accompanies and builds with the action. As in Cowell’s books, there is a Scottish lilt to the music, and the opening and closing credits drew us into the superficially slapstick setting.

Rating: I’d give How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is rated PG for action and “some rude humor,” a solid 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. I liked it about as much as its predecessor, if not as much as the TV show, which expands on all the characters.

Don’t let the relatively disappointing box-office returns dissuade you from seeing it. I’d recommend this movie to fantasy fans, children looking for their summer cartoon fix, and those looking for comedy and drama in lighter measures.

In other family-friendly animation, I thought the third season premiere of Avatar: Legend of Korra was strong, and I look forward to The Boxtrolls. Janice and I also joined Thomas & Kai-Yin for dinner at Noodles & Co., which just opened in Burlington, Mass.

Coming soon: More gaming updates, a Star Trek convention recap, and Byron V.O.’s visit…

Return to the desert

I’ve already reported on the time that Janice and I spent in Phoenix around her conference for work. On Thursday, 22 May 2014, we drove a rental car down to Tucson for more sightseeing. The last time we drove through the Southwest’s deserts was to the Grand Canyon back in 2006. If only the roads around Boston were as straight, wide, and smooth!

We visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic Roman Catholic outpost  serving the Tohono O’odham people. (The day before, we had looked into Saint Mary’s Basilica near our hotel.) It was interesting seeing the layers of aboriginal, Spanish colonial, and American history. As we had seen at the Heard Museum, much of our history of treatment of Native Americans and other non-whites is shameful, but their descendants continue to persevere and try to follow traditional ways.

On a lighter note, Janice and I then drove to the Mini Time Machine, which was more sophisticated than we expected. We had seen similar dioramas and miniatures at Roadside America in Pennsylvania and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. The Mini Time Machine’s collection of dollhouses from the past 200 years was impressive, and we recognized some figurines from our own collections.

From there, we went into downtown Tucson, where we had lunch at Bison Witches, a hip bar and deli. Unlike the sparkling new business and arts district of Phoenix, the neighborhood we visited in Tucson was more hippie-friendly, despite being deep in a “red state.”

We also stopped at Campus Candy Yogurt (we had previously visited Yogurt Time a few times) before driving back to Phoenix for dinner at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. We had previously hesitated eating there because of the name and the fact that it was emptier than its neighbors, but the food was good, and it may just be that fewer people noticed the restaurant or like Mediterranean food.

On Friday, we shipped a box of conference proceedings, maps, and laundry home. We then took the Metro to the Desert Botanical Garden, which gave us insights into the various terrain types of the Southwest. Fortunately for us, the temperatures were only in the 90s Fahrenheit. Janice and I saw numerous species of cactus, as well as hummingbirds, ground squirrels, baby quail, and cute lizards. We also had pity on the park staffers having to disassemble many Chihuly glass sculptures. After walking on some trails, we had lunch at Gertrude’s Restaurant.

Gene in Arizona
Saguaro cactus

Janice and I then stopped at the Mill Avenue shopping district and the area around a campus of Arizona State University. Again, we experienced a different vibe from downtown Phoenix or Tucson. We got our daily yogurt fix at Moja Yogurt and checked out Pop Culture Paradise, a nice comic book and game shop.

For our last meals in Phoenix, Janice and I ate at Pizza Studio on Friday night and Matt’s Big Breakfast at the airport on Saturday. It’s a good thing that we had a substantial meal, because our departure was delayed for about an hour and a half because the pilot’s seat needed to be replaced — a first for us. I read the graphic novel Trickster, which compiles Native American tales.

Overall, we liked sprawling Phoenix and the other places we visited in Arizona. While our few days of sightseeing were shorter than a proper vacation, it was nice to get away from our cubicles. Fortunately, we had the remainder of the Memorial Day weekend to get over any jetlag.

Since our return, we’ve been catching up on work, e-mail, phone calls, recorded television (about which I hope to blog soon), and gaming sessions. We’ll likely be busy with the usual rounds of visits to and from family and friends later this summer.