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Quest for Fire (1981, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud)

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Set approximately 80,000 years ago in the Paleolithic Era, Quest for Fire tells the story of the Ulam Tribe, early Homo Sapiens who struggle to master control of fire and improve their lives. Their camp is invaded by more primitive ape-like Wagabu and the Ulam’s flame is extinguished. Naoh (Everett McGill) is charged with finding fire somewhere in the world and bringing it back home. He’s accompanied by Amoukar (Ron Perlman wearing disturbingly little makeup to play primitive man) and Gaw (Nameer Al-Kadi). They cross treacherous mountains, confront ferocious saber-toothed tigers, combat the cannibalistic Kzamm tribe, and eventually encounter a group of humans who are progressing towards an advanced future.

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Girl Asleep (2016, dir. Rosemary Myers)

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14-year-old Greta Driscoll has just moved to a new town and like many adolescents is having trouble fitting in. She makes friends with the kind, but awkward Elliott and quick enemies with Jade and her mean girl crew. Things get worse when her mother decides to invite everyone at her school to Greta’s 15th birthday party. Greta is crushed after being humiliated by Jade during the party and ends up slipping away into a magical world just beyond the woods of her home.

From the first moments, there is a strong Wes Anderson vibe to the aesthetics of the picture. But I knew there was something slightly different I couldn’t put my finger on. After a few more scenes it was apparent, this film has much more overt warmth than your typical Anderson fare. Don’t get me wrong, I love Wes Anderson, but I have rarely had a strong emotional reaction to any of his films. Girl Asleep has all the quirky characters and the style, but with a sense of life and energy, Anderson’s films intentionally refrain from. It is not a perfect movie, though, and while characters are warm and full of life, they are still painted in broad strokes.

Another piece of inspiration appears to the British television series The Mighty Boosh. The magical land of the woods and its inhabitants are presented in the style of a young child’s imagination. One central figure is clad in a banana yellow rain slicker with pink and blue crayon tones across their masked face. There’s a high similarity to the costumes seen in Moonrise Kingdom but with zanier, more fantastic visual accents.

The performances in Girl Asleep are excellent and capture the specific traits each character needs to present. Greta (Bethany Whitmore) is vulnerable and fierce, able to balance the many facets of her character going through a period of tremendous growth and change. Elliot (Harrison Feldman) is one of those actors who makes performance look easy. He is effortless and funny, awkward and genuinely charming. Greta’s parents, played by originators of the story on stage, Matthew Whittet, and Amber McMahon, are entirely exaggerated parents without being unsympathetic.

Girl Asleep won’t be my favorite film of the year, but it does take a very well-worn genre, coming of age, and adds some freshness to it. The magical aspects of the story make it something different. The performances, particularly Bethany Whitmore, are very charming and endearing. I could see this being an excellent film to introduce a neophyte film geek to art cinema and non-American films.

The OA (Netflix, Season 1, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij)

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A young woman is caught on camera jumping off a bridge. She doesn’t die, and an older couple watching television coverage recognize the woman as their daughter, Prairie who has been missing for seven years. The biggest shock comes when they find she has been miraculously cured of her blindness. Prairie hunkers down in the unfinished subdivision her parents live in while meeting an eclectic assortment of young people and a high school teacher. This group becomes her greatest friends, the ones whom she confides the secret of what happened to her in the last seven years and why she no longer goes by Prairie but The O.A.

For the majority of the pilot episode, I wasn’t too keen on the series. Nothing stuck out as particularly interesting. There was a slightly intriguing mystery in The O.A. losing her blindness, but all the pieces felt very spread apart, and nothing was a great hook. Then the last fifteen minutes started. Out of nowhere a powerful musical score swells, the credits begin (which I hadn’t noticed did not play at the beginning of the episode), and we found ourselves in a place very different than where we started. This is where I was hooked. As The O.A. tells her story, it was pretty impossible for me not to become engrossed.

The series hits a note very reminiscent of Lost. Lost was and is one of my favorite television shows of all time. When I reflect back on the first season, I have realized that the mysteries (polar bears, smoke monster, the hatch) while intriguing were not the primary factor that caused me to come back week after week. The relationships between the characters and how they were revealed one piece at a time are what still resonates with me. So many Lost clones got that part wrong and overloaded their pilots with too many bits of strangeness and mystery hooks. They forgot that characters are the core of a good piece of fiction.

The O.A. is a show that is nothing without its characters and their relationships. The obvious center of the show is The O.A. and Homer, two captives who have been to the same places beyond most people’s understanding. Their compressed seven-year relationship is full of trials and struggles and an ending full of beautiful frustration, yet the hope that the story is not over yet. My personal favorite relationship was that of Steve and Betty. Steve begins the show as an incredibly unlikable teenage prick. He is a drug dealer, obsessed with the physical over the spiritual, quick to anger and jealousy. He assaults a fellow student for no particularly good reason. He is someone we should naturally root against.

Betty is a teacher at the local high school who has suffered a loss. None of her colleagues actually know about it, but through a series of circumstance, she and The O.A. meet to talk about Steve. Our protagonist’s supernatural empathy allows her to see beyond the strict authoritarian teacher and seek to understand. The way Betty changes and the way she sees Steve by the end of the series is beautiful. Playing Betty is the remarkable Phyllis Smith, who you may know as Phyllis from The Office. She is one of those wonderful character actors who endear themselves to you. It is easy for an actress like Ms. Smith to be typecast after a long run on a popular network series. But in The O.A. she breaks away from our preconceived notions. She portrays a regular person process a tremendous grief and coming out on the other end an incredibly empowered woman.

This is not a show for everyone. Another similarity it has with Lost is that it features a nebulous type of supernatural. Science and new age philosophy weave together to present ideas that ludicrous so to enjoy the show you have to suspend your disbelief. I would argue that the character development being done is heightened by the more fantastic elements of the show, so they are valuable parts of the overall piece. The O.A. ends on a cliffhanger and a second season has been announced. I am intensely eager to see where the series goes next because it spent its first eight episodes flipping my expectations around at every turn.

Mae Volume 1 (Dark Horse)
Writer: Gene Ha
Artist: Gene Ha

26832098Narnia. Wonderland. Oz. These are some of the more well-known dimensions storybook heroines travel to, where they go to partake in great adventures against terrible evils. Comic creator Gene Ha (Top Ten) is building a world like this of his own, but instead of telling us the story of the main female protagonist we enter in the middle of the story and see it through the eyes of her estranged younger sister, Mae.

For most of her life, Mae failed to keep up with her older sister Abbie. It seemed that the older girl was always running away from home and getting into trouble. It’s been seven years now since anyone in their small midwestern town has seen Abbie, and Mae has gone on with her life. Then Abbie shows up suddenly, clad in strange military garb and being pursued by inhuman creatures. It turns out Abbie is a major hero in the land of Mňoukové, a world populated by magical creatures and Eastern Europeans immigrants that accidentally crossed over a century ago. This is a world where science is merely a more unusual form of magic and city-states are at constant war.

The first volume of the series feels very much like a setting up of the pieces. The first couple issues stay in the mundane world and let us get to know Mae and her family and friends, as well as flesh out the strained relationship between her and Abbie. There is also some nice mystery building but nothing that is stretched out for too long. The payoff and journey to Mňoukové happen briskly into the series. Once we’re in the other world, some nice strokes of worldbuilding are delivered, but as I said before nothing is actually resolved, it’s mostly set up for where the series is going to go.

I’ve been a big fan of Ha since reading his work with Alan Moore on Top Ten in 1999. More engrossing than Moore’s writing was the rich, detailed world Ha built in the book. Every panel of Top Ten was crammed with details, easter eggs, and bits of minor but rewarding world building. Mňoukové is beginning to be fleshed out, but I get the sense Ha is taking a much slower burn pace with plans to carefully reveal the corned of this place. That said, the momentum feels a little stifled, and it is hard to get a sense of where the series is going.

I liked that the factions in Mňoukové are much more complicated than your typical storybook fare. There is no obvious Wicked Witch or Queen of Hearts. This is shown through Mae’s sense of being overwhelmed as her sister confidently navigates the hierarchy of nobles, allies, and enemies. The core mission for these two is to rescue their father, and because of this web of characters, I found myself forgetting that’s why they were there. I know that’s simply the conceit to get the sisters together and in Mňoukové, but I hope that future volumes build that sense of momentum and keep going in one direction.

scarlet-heroesI decided recently to start a one on one tabletop roleplaying campaign with my wife and chose Scarlet Heroes as the system to use. Scarlet Heroes is an Old School roleplaying game designed specifically for one GM and one player. There is a premade setting that comes with the system, but I prefer to build something with my players, so we have a shared mutual vision of the world. Ariana and I sat down a couple weekends ago and used Ben Robbins’ Microscope to broadly build the world.

Microscope is a game that allows plays to collectively create the history of a world. You start by creating a concept for the world and starting and ending periods. From there, players rotate as the Lens, a role that allows a player to choose an aspect of the world and spend a round building it out through additional Periods, Events, or specific Scenes. Microscope is not about being comprehensive but about working at whatever level of detail you enjoy and interacting with a world that way.

Here are the results of our Microscope game.

The world we created is Muatera, a refuge for a large group of colonists from a world drained of its magic and left lifeless. Piling on board their planar shipwhales, around 350,000 refugees headed for a star that had been found by some of the last mages. They became lost on the way as the magic faded and found Muatera, a decently hospitable planet where a home could be made. Almost as soon as they landed, their shipwhales became stricken with a strange illness and the colonists realized they would be stuck here for the foreseeable
future. The races that made up the colonists were Humans, Elves, Halflings, and Orcs.

The Humans are pretty standard and hold many of the bureaucratic and political positions in the colony. Elves are more esoteric and alien and have developed their own technical magics, separate from the very elemental craft that drained and ruined the Old World. Halflings are the industrious agrarians doing the hard labor without seeking praise or reward beyond a good job done. Orcs are the roaming free spirits, moving in nomadic tribes and exploring Muatera in more detail that any other race.

eecb9967d852b7759d52ad659d98fa34After about a century, the ruins of the Remnants were discovered buried beneath Muatera. These were the piece of a lost civilization, the details of whom are yet to be fleshed out. Their writings did lead to a cure that helped boost the shipwhale herds and allowed the colonists to visit the three neighboring planets in the system. Three additional races were discovered: The Goliath Tieflings, Hypogeal Elves, and Psionic Dwarves. Relations with each is complex and distinct, but no major conflicts have sprung up…yet.

 

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Ella Pips, Halfling Mage

Our campaign will take place 200 years after the colony began and Ariana decided she wanted to play as a Halfling came up with Estrella Pips, the daughter of a shipwhale rancher and the middle child of five. She has learned magic from some dusty tomes in her parents’ attic, and she uses her magic to midwife the shipwhales. We decided that once the shipwhales reach a certain size, possibly when they develop the capacity to hold their breath in the vacuum of space, they float up through the atmosphere and finish growing to their final massive ship size. Ariana established that Halflings are determined survivors who don’t think much of leisure time but are loyal to the death with their friends and allies. Estrella is the maturity equivalent of 15 human years in age and actually does like the idea of enjoying life and playing.

 

Some of the threads and hooks she gave me through my questions were:

  • Shipwhales escaped, Milo (Estrella’s eldest brother) thinks they were stolen by some Orc bandits.
  • Politicians from Kaphis, the capitol colony, wants to buy up or take land because of the Remnant ruins possibly buried beneath.
  • The worldscar left by a battle between a Magus and Remnant golems is barren and has caused the fertile land to increase in value and be fought over more violently.

This will be my first major delve into OSR/Dungeon Crawling since 2008 when I ran the dismal (IMO) D&D 4th. I am very excited about this and the world, fed mostly by details from Ariana has me intrigued. I’ve even purchased a halfling wizard mini for her to use. The first actual session will be Saturday, December 17th so look for a write-up after that.

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The city of Atlanta exists in a strange space geographically and culturally. Burnt to the ground during the American Civil War, rebuilt and exploded into a major hub in the Southeast for manufacturing and the civil rights movement, now a diverse and constantly shifting urban space. It’s one of the largest cities in America, but it’s surrounded by lush, verdant hills. It’s the place where the city meets the country. It’s a place where rappers hang out in the woods wearing their hunting camo. Donald Glover wasn’t born here, but he was raised in the contradiction that Atlanta is, and he understands the true wonder of that beautiful, messy conflict of ideas.

Earn (Glover) doesn’t so much as live in Atlanta, as he exists there. He dropped out of Princeton. He lives with the mother of his child, but their relationship is complicated, and she sees other men with no argument from Earn. He works a dead-end at the Atlanta airport. Even his parents won’t let him in the house because they know he’ll ask for money. When his cousin Alfred releases a regional hit as the rapper “Paper Boi,” Earn sees this as an opportunity to make something of his life as Alfred’s manager. But that’s not really what the show is about; Atlanta spends the next nine episodes challenges the viewer’s’ notions of just what the show is and what is it about.

Glover plays with traditional television structure, partially inspired by the work done by Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Louis C.K. on his FX series. The success of the latter show has opened doors for creators like Glover and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things not to be forced into typical three-act sitcom structure. Atlanta has no loyalty to any one character and will allow the focus to meander depending on the interest of the moment. Sometimes we have Earn hustling for Alfred. Others we follow Alfred’s right-hand man, Darius as he goes through a series of deals and bartering for some unknown purpose. On the show’s most interesting episodes it highlights a day in the life of Vanessa, Earn’s on again/off again after she makes a career ending mistake. There’s also an entire episode framed as a local program on issues in the black community, where Alfred is confronted over transphobic comments.

The play between relationships is what makes Atlanta so engrossing. Earn and Alfred are arguably the show’s core relationship, and they don’t behave like a typical performer/manager. Their familial connection seeps into every aspect, and Alfred makes concessions that you would not see a performer do for someone that is going to take 5% of their paycheck. And Earn looks after Alfred in a more intimate way than most managers.

Even more interesting is the relationship between Earn and Vanessa. From their first scene together, waking up in bed and beginning their morning routine there is a palpable tension. As the series goes on, we get two spotlight episodes with just her and one crucial episode about the next stage of she and Earn’s relationship. Vanessa is a highly educated woman who has ended up sidetracked with a child and undefined relationship. We see her interact with peers from college who have made their living in possibly questionable ways and Vanessa ponders other paths.

What kept me coming back to Atlanta was the magical realism of the series. Smartly, Glover and company don’t go overboard in the first couple episodes, hinting at the less familiar elements of the series. Glover has described the series as “Twin Peaks with rappers, ” and this comes through during Earn’s encounter with a strangely stoic man on the bus offering him a Nutella sandwich before exiting the bus and wandering off. As episodes roll up, we find Justin Bieber played by a young black man, the quirky inhabitants of a police lock up; an opportunistic social media-driven pizza delivery man, a slimy club promoter who escapes through secret passages, and many more strange and interesting side characters. Glover believes Atlanta is a magical place and works to convince us of the same.

The Hike by Drew Magary
2016, Viking

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The Hike wastes no time in jumping right into the journey down the path. Ben is a businessman on a trip to the hills of Pennsylvania. Before dinner with a client, he decides to take a hike behind the rural hotel. He quickly becomes lost and finds himself on a path, a path that he must stay on or die. Ben meets a series of strange and fantastic creatures and finds he is on a journey of redefining the perceptions of himself. The resolution of the story brings a huge revelation that reframes the context of the entire novel.

Author Drew Magary is an odd fellow. He wrote for the sports blog Deadspin and currently GQ, he authored a nonfiction book on what a terrible parent he is and won a Chopped amateur competition. This unique point of view makes the prose of The Hike stand out. It’s sparse in a very Hemingway-esque style at moments. This is an interesting counterpoint to the ridiculous encounters like a cursing crab, a giant control panel manipulating cricket, and a good-humored man-eating giantess.

Magary cites books and video games as his main influence for The Hike. Homer’s Odyssey is a primary reference throughout the structure of the novel, a man on a quest to get back to his wife. There’re threads of Grimm and other traditional folktales woven throughout, particularly with an elderly woman in a cottage in the middle of the forest who turns out to know much more than she first lets on. There’s also some outright horror, especially with the Doberman-masked madmen that pursue Ben throughout the story.

Magary stated in an interview that many of the elaborate and silly solutions to problems in the text are inspired by the illogical or irrational reasoning of many King’s Quest PC games. I remember the monster manual Ben comes across in the hotel, and it’s utterly ridiculous methods for killing the bizarre and strange creatures listed therein. In the same interview, he explains that impetus of the novel came from his similar experience of going out and getting so easily lost in the woods.

The novel felt fairly like some fun fluff and then when Ben learned about his fate from the crab and confronted the Producer I started to see a significant turn in what was happening in the subtext. The final scene where Ben sees his wife again after decades of being away, while only a few hours have passed in real world time, and also has the revelation about what happened to her years ago was the big change. The Hike is a story about how impossible it is to share the effects of trauma and life-changing experiences. Ben sees it in his wife’s eyes, realizing she lived through the same journey as him, but we are left in a place where we see they cannot connect on this. The journey was such a singularly personal one that even though they see it in each other’s eyes we know they will never be able to sit down and share anything about it.

Discussion Questions:

How do you successfully communicate personal trauma and life-altering experiences?

Ben goes through a major metamorphosis throughout the Hike. Is he the same person on a physical level at the end as he was when he started? What makes our physical form our self?