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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

A solid 17 on a d20 roll.

Whatever boundaries separate fantasy novels from movies from video games from role-playing games are delightfully blurred in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.


A bard (who doesn't really play much music in the movie), a barbarian, a somewhat hapless sorcerer, a shape-shifter, and (for a time) a paladin, are on a quest to retrieve a magical stone that will resurrect a lost loved one. In true D&D fashion, the only way to break into the magically sealed vault that holds the stone is to retrieve another lost artifact (a helmet), which is hard to get to and well guarded, but it can be used to ... well, you get the idea. The movie has all the classic tropes of a D&D game (specifically, a heist adventure), and all the free-reeling fun of a good RPG session. 


There's complications, plot twists, pieces of luck (both good and bad), and, of course, lots of swords and sorcery. It's funny (but thankfully, unlike a lot of modern movies, the humor isn't entirely sardonic). It's fast-paced. It's got plenty of action. Blend that all together with just the right touch of character arcs, workmanlike acting (no one takes their role too seriously, and that really works in this movie) and you get something unique: an RPG movie that can hold together as a movie while still keeping the feel of an RPG game. 


Grab your favorite set of dice, crack open a beer, and enjoy it!

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Book Review: Murder Your Employer

The Hogwarts of Homicide

Aside from the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I've never been much of a fan for mysteries. The handful of mystery novels I've read always felt like I was working through a crossword puzzle (instead of enjoying a story). So it was very much an impulse purchase when, as I was looking through a new Barnes & Noble that had just opened, I picked up Rupert Holmes' Murder Your Employer. I'm glad the store placed it where it did.


Set in the 1950's, the book follows three protagonists, Cliff Iverson, an engineer and all-around likable guy, Gemma Lindley, a young British woman who lost her father to illness, and Doris Maye, a Hollywood maven facing the twilight of her career. The three of them, it turns out, all have one thing in common: they each work for a boss that is utterly, completely, irredeemably awful. These bosses aren't just bad to work for, they're bad for society. Each of whom, in their own way, engrandizes themselves while impoverishing (and sometimes endangering) others. Holmes does a wonderful job of making the reader, like the protagonists, wish their bosses were dead.


As it turns out, there's a school for people like Cliff, Gemma, and Doris. The McMaster Conservatory located in ... well, no one (except the faculty) knows exactly where this pristine, Victorian campus is. Because the students are always brought there under sedation. At McMaster, pupils who wish to "delete" (the euphemism for murder) undersirable targets, take classes to hone their skills in the finer aspects of getting away with murder. There's a code, of sorts, and the course work is quite rigorous. The campus is, of course, bucolic--with dormitories, "labs," athletic fields, gorgeous parks, a quaint pub, and even a chapel (with a serving cleric!). Think of McMaster as a Hogwarts of Homicide. If this all seems a little much for the premise of a mystery novel, it is. But Holmes layers it in manageable pieces and serves it out with clever prose and vignettes, so suspending one's disbelief becomes a delight. The author also, quite wisely, doesn't endeavor to string an entire novel around the school, but instead breaks the book into halves.


The second half of the book follows Cliff, Gemma, and Doris as they return to the real world to work through their "theses" (that is, the actual murder of their respective targets). You'll find yourself cheering them on as three separate "mysteries" are slowly laid out through the point of view of the persons attempting to commit the crimes. The endings are not at all predictable, with plenty of twists and complications to keep the reader on his or her toes. 


Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. It may be a tad long (there are a couple of points in the first half that drag a bit). And the premise is absolutely ludicrous. But Holmes makes it work with masterful pacing, relatable characters, some fine wordsmithing, and a genuine sense of fun that's suffused throughout the book. Recommended.

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Review: Cocaine Bear

The title's better than the movie ...

There are three ingredients to make a "cult classic" movie: (1) an absurd premise; (2) a low budget; and (3) actors who aren't entirely sure what they're supposed to be doing. Cocaine Bear has two of the three. And that's the problem.


The central premise of the movie is pretty ludicrous. In the mid-80's, a drug dealer throws a duffel bag of cocaine out of an airplane over a southern forest and a wandering bear gets into it. Apparently, this actually happened in real life (which is why the movie has alternatively proclaimed it is "based on" or "inspired by" a true story--the latter being more accurate). Whereas the real bear dropped dead, the Cocaine Bear bear develops a nose for coke, takes on super powers, and goes on a seemingly endless, drug-fueled bloody bender. No one is spared (least of all, the audience). There's more horror than humor here. Park rangers, drug dealers, European hikers ... they all come to learn, in grisly fashion, that bears and cocaine just don't mix.


Oh, there's some half-hearted attempts to string together a number of plot threads: something about a couple of kids who played hookie, a drug dealer's son seeking his redemption, some love interests. They're all paltry and spread way too thin. And the only chemistry on the screen is the drugs. Nothing in any of the storylines really matter, and the actors all act accordingly.


But, then, that's not why you're going to see this movie, right? You want to see a bear on cocaine, right? 


Alas, the star of the show is not as cool as she could have been. The bear scenes (almost all of which are CGI) come off as pretty boring. There's no shock, no awe, and not very much to laugh at.


This could have been a funny movie. But it isn't.


It's not a particularly good horror movie, either. There's no real suspense, no dark, lurking menace. And WAY too many half-baked plot lines that never come together. 


So that leaves a "cult classic," which, I think, is what the producers were aiming for. Cocaine Bear has its absurd premise and more than ample meandering acting. The problem, though, is that with a $35 Million production budget, you can't really pretend it's been filmed on the cheap. Which is part of the fun of the old cult classics. Basically, the movie's overdosed.


Wait for the video.



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Stranger Things

I know I'm late to the party, but for the past couple of weeks, I've been working through the first two seasons of Stranger Things. Speaking as a child of the 80's--who played his share of D&D and rode a bike all over the place--let me just say this show hits a real sweet spot.


It's 1983, and a government lab in Hawkins, Indiana (something between a large, rural town, and a small suburb) has been engaging in covert experiments with telekinetic children. Why? Because their powers could be developed into a weapon against the Soviets--which is entirely plausible given the zeitgeist back then. But an especially "gifted" (but traumatized) young girl has unwittingly opened a hole into a dark, dangerous alternative reality. The "Upside Down," as this place is called, has all sorts of connections to our world.


Those connections, however, are mostly unpleasant. When ten-year-old Will Byers disappears into the Upside Down, his distraught single mother, his older brother, and his best friends and fellow D&D gamers, all go on the hunt to find him. There's deadly creatures, menacing fiends, and more 80's nostalgia than a New Wave Retro Night. High stakes, paranormal strangeness, government conspiracies, kids riding their bikes to save the day--Stranger Things is what you get when The Goonies meets The X-Files. It really is a delight to watch. 


A couple of small criticisms. The acting is a little bit uneven in the first season, but gets better as the show goes on. Also, the plot lines get machinated from time to time (mostly when the characters are getting moved about in clusters like chess pieces). But it's easy to gloss past those minor issues because the story is so fast-paced and foreboding. Highly recommended viewing for the Gen Xer who keeps a soft spot for malls, walkie-talkies, and classic role-playing games.

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GHOSTBUSTERS — Afterthought

Ghostbusters Afterlife dug up a nice piece of nostalgia from my childhood, pulled the corpse from its coffin, and made it flop around in a barnyard while mouthing unfunny lines from its dead, withered lips. Yeah, it was that bad.


The story has a basic "next generation" setup. Egon Spengler has died, alone, in a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere. I would have cautioned spoiler alert, but if you don't pick up who it is and what's happening in the first ten minutes of the film, you're just not paying attention (for which you should be commended). Apparently, Egon had an estranged daughter, who, in turn, has a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, Phoebe, the latter being something of a replica of her late grandfather. They're also poor, apparently. The family is evicted from a pretty nice looking apartment, drives in a new-looking car to Egon's farm (now theirs). Phoebe discovers a ghost in the farm, who leads her to her grandfather's underground lab. Paul Rudd, a seismologist who is substitute teaching in summer school gets hooked in with the family. Ghosts start to appear in the little farm town. The kids and a really annoying sidekick take it upon themselves to take up the ghostbusting trade. And the last 45 minutes basically replicates what happened in the last 45 minutes of the original Ghostbusters movie.


The story was ... well, there was no story. The entire script was a patchwork of scenes machinated together for the sole purpose of having kids do "ghostbuster stuff" in a rural setting. The dialogue was horrendous. There was nothing resembling an authentic human relationship between anyone, at any time, in any part of the movie. The acting felt flat, but I pin that more on the terrible script than on any of the actors. It was, in short, a bad movie.


The premise was a good idea. And the special effects were fantastic. But they can't make up for a seriously flawed script. Which made Ghostbusters Afterlife not much better than an afterthought.

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Scream (2022)—It’s Pretty Bad

Run ... to another movie.

I've never been a fan of horror movies. And I grew up in the 80's. For whatever reason, slasher flicks just never did much for me. 


But when Scream (the original) came out in the 1990's, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it had a typical horror movie's plot line (you've got a killer; you've got a bunch of teenaged potential victims; they run and, well, scream, and most of them get stabbed in various inventive ways). But the movie had a solid cast. It poked at the genre a little bit (all in fun), which gave it just the right amount of comedy. And it served up a neat twist in the end. I liked it. Apparently, lots of other folks did, too.


So, of course, Hollywood monetized the bejeezus out of it. And that is all the new Scream (2022) is--the last squeeze on the husk of a profitable franchise.


The premise is basically the same as the original. A group of teenagers who are, we are told, friends (you'd never know it from the acting) find themselves in the sights of Ghost Face, the masked killer who once plagued another group of teenaged friends in their small town. The story of the first group of friends became the subject of a film-within-the-film franchise called Stab. That movie (Stab) became serialized to the point of weariness, which kind of plays into the actual movie's plot, eventually ... assuming you care. 


The new kids immediately suspect the killer is one of their number--because they're all friends, and that's what friends do. Indeed, Gen Z of this little town is pretty darned sanguine about getting murdered. They sit on couches and chairs and type on their phones and riff off horror movie tropes and get killed. Eventually, the original crew of kids who were stalked by the first Ghost Face (Cox, Arquette, and Campbell), all grown up and a little grayer, get roped in to help deal with this new(ish) threat. Maybe you'll care about what happens to everyone. Maybe you'll be surprised that there's another "twist" ending machinated like a pretzel weave into the stumbling plot line of this movie.


But you probably won't. Because the acting is almost as bad as the script. With the lone exception of Jenna Ortega (as Tara Carpenter), everyone in this film is just going through the motions. Who knows? Maybe that was purposeful. Because if there's one thing Scream (2022) assaults you with, relentlessly and agonizingly, is how consciously "meta" it is. It's so very aware of itself, and its genre, and the conceit of highbrow art within its genre, and telling its audience about its awareness of itself, that no one involved in its making bothered to put together an actual story. 


Which makes this "requel" of Scream both tired and tedious.

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DUNE IN REVIEW (the Good, the Bad, and the Awful)

Could you brood a little more?

It's not often we get out to sci-fi movie premiers, but the Missus and I teamed up with another couple to check out the latest film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 classic, Dune. Two and a half hours later (and with the tinnitus still ringing from the Dolby surround sound), here's the Good, the Bad, and the Awful of Denis Villeneuve's attempt to mash a wonky, complicated, pseudo-psychedelic 188,000-word novel into big screen, mass entertainment....


The Good


The cinematography in Villeneuve's Dune is fantastic. The settings were sprawling, beautiful, and at times, haunting. No doubt much of it is computer-generated, but still, every scene is intricate, and well-crafted, and carefully thought out--from the varying art styles in textiles to little details that only serve to pay homage to trifles in the novel (repeated closeups of a mounted bull's head trophy were a nice air kiss to Herbert's book). And if you like big machines, if you've ever gone to a monster truck show and said to yourself, "If only they could do this with space ships," well, strap yourself in, my friend, because believe you me, a $165 Million budget can whip up some thumping big machines and blow them up big-time. And since that's pretty much become the "spice" of modern sci-if movies, the sheer volume of metal and explosions in this film will all but guarantee it will be a money-maker.


The Bad


Villeneuve had a talented cast playing beloved, complicated characters. But apparently he gave them all the same direction: brood. You can almost hear him shouting in his director's horn: "I want those frowns to hurt, people!" Every actor on the screen, from every planet, great or small, came across the same--broody men and women brooding on their broodiness. Even the knife fights looked mopey. 


And some of that may have been a function of the script, which served up a heaping helping of flat blandness. In some places, the lines were just outright silly (note to screenwriters: when characters find themselves in a confined place that is literally exploding all around them, it is completely unnecessary to have one of them calmly suggest, "Let's get out of here."). It's all the more a pity because you could tell the actors were trying really hard to wring the most out of what they were made to work with (Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica deserves a "Bread Upon the Waters" award (if there were such a thing) for putting together a solid performance despite mediocre material, not unlike Bryan Cranston's surprisingly moving character in that 2014 Godzilla remake).


The Awful



The soundtrack. Oh, dear God. Hans Zimmer picked out a harmonic minor chord and pounded on the poor thing for two and a half hours. It was like Peter Gabriel's Zaar, amped up to 11 and set to play on an endless loop.


To Wrap-Up ...


So overall, the movie was "meh."' Which is a huge improvement over David Lynch's god-awfulness. But like the prior version, this version is going to be incoherent for anyone who hasn't read the book. Maybe that's the rub. Maybe Dune is just one of those stories that only works as a novel.

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