Cropsey (2009)

Back in junior high in Norfolk, Nebraska, the other kids used to talk about how the old mental asylum was haunted. Never mind, the building was still operational and remodeled. It was on the edge of town, back in the woods and, well, seemed creepy. One fall night, we got into an older kids car and drove out there to look for ghosts. I remember being a bit scared. At the time, I read a lot of haunted house books and was really into it. Amityville Horror was my favorite book. I got twenty feet from the car when an older kid jumped out and scared me, I might have spent the rest of the evening in the car. Nobody even got close the the hospital.

I’m not really sure. Memory, especially mine, is a fuzzy affair. I don’t even know where the legend that the mental hospital was haunted and why. I never got any details on the story. I probably made up a few new details.
Every town has haunted spots filled with legends and mis-remembered ‘facts’ about why it’s haunted. It’s just in our nature to fill in the blanks in our knowledge with something, anything.

Cropsey is a documentary about an urban legend that becomes real then spins back out into folklore.

Staten Island is a dumping ground—for NYC’s garbage, for mob bodies and for a short time in the 70’s and 80’s for mentally challenged dead children.

Parents used the all-purpose boogeyman Cropsey to keep kids away from Staten Island’s wooded areas and abandoned buildings. Cropsey took kids. Teenagers ran with the story and Cropsey became a man with a hook or a mental patient or homeless man. He may have set any number of fires or belonged to the Satanic Church. A local boy scout group spread the legend up and down the Eastern seaboard. A lot of towns have their own Cropsey legend, but few have an actual person to pin the legend on.

Albert Rand was picked up in 1987 in connection with the disappearance of Jennifer, an adorable 10 year old girl with Down Syndrome. Suddenly, Albert Rand, a homeless man who lived in the woods near Willowbroook, an abandoned mental institution for children, suddenly became the real Cropsey. There was never any physical evidence tying Rand to the girl, but there were lots of stories. And when Jennifer turned up dead, after he was in custody, Rand eventually went to prison for kidnapping (but not murdering) the girl. And Cropsey’s legend spun out to the disappearance of up 12 other children, mostly mentally handicapped, over a 15 year span. And Rand became tied to many of them, even though there was no physical evidence.

The documentarian couple who originally set out to research the Cropsey legend then turned their focus to trying to find out the truth against a real life man. Quickly, their problem became evaluating what is true and what is not. And it’s a problem that just never will be solved. Too much time has past, people’s memories change, too many people have worked on the various missing child cases and they all have their own ideas, ideas that become facts to others and still, there’s just nothing concrete. Plus, Albert Rand isn’t helping, he’s bananas, both proclaiming his innocence, but using the power he obtained from pretending (or actually having) the secrets of the case.
During the filming, just two years ago, Rand is brought up again on a missing girl case. Once again, it’s all thirty year old witness testimony from alcoholics and drug users and no physical evidence. I won’t tell you the results, but it’s not surprising.

To the documentarian’s credit, they don’t come out fully for or against Rand. This may be frustrating for the crime docu junkies where guilt (almost always) or innocence is spelled out in a tidy 48 minutes. Admittedly, at the end of the movie, I felt a bit gypped by the “you decide” stance on Rand’s guilt or innocence. There was no bombshell. In fact, their exclusive jailhouse talk with Rand fell through. But that’s the way life just is sometimes. You just can’t know. And that’s the real point of the film, you sometimes just can’t know.

I certainly can see why many parents would want to hang the disappearance of their child on Rand, but the truth is, they’ll never probably know the truth. It’s heartbreaking.

I’m fascinated by how people fill in the gaps in their knowledge and then how they justify this gap as actual truth. Urban legends are fueled by this line of thinking. As is religion. And politics. And emotions.

Technically, the documentary is a mix of the straight ahead crime docs you see on basic cable mixed with a few touches of the more personal, documentarian as participant-style of most indie documentaries. Narratively, the movie is a bit scatter-shot, casting a wide net to emphasize the broadness of the urban legend and Rand’s case. The effect is that there always seems to be something left out, some piece of tying information that would bring the case in sharp focus. Sadly, there just isn’t. There is just interview after interview of people speculating what they think actually happened, much of which just plain has to be untrue because of all the inconsistencies and errors in the case and other people’s stories. Someone could easily come along, omit a bunch of testimony, and make a movie proclaiming Rand a Satanic worshipper who sacrificed children or as a completely innocent man.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was clips from a 1972 Willowbrook documentary from a young rising star, Geraldo Rivera. The shots of the severely mentally handicapped kids, naked and covered in their own shit, warehoused in a gigantic crumbling facility were downright haunting. It was so bad that when Rand was shown the tape (he was an intern there in the ’60’s), he becomes practically catatonic. I guess I have to give Rivera a pass next time he does something sensational and stupid.

Cropsey is on Netflix Streaming and while it has a few narrative flaws is an interesting look at a time and place and how emotion and circumstantial evidence can become accepted truth, how the nightmare duel of urban legends can ignite with some spark of real life.

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Monsters (2010)

It’s nice to review a movie the same day as The AV Club does.

In thinking about my two favorite Sci-fi movies, they share two qualities. One, a strong theme or point of view and two, an attention to detail. I could watch Children of Men and Brazil (what I’m classifying as my favorite sci-fi movies) again and again because I find something new each time I watch.

Monsters is a good-looking low-budget Sci-fi movie that should probably change it’s name. It isn’t about Monsters. The movie isn’t a high-octane thrill-ride or even something like War of the Worlds. You only see about a handful of creatures (the movie only refers to them as creatures). Monsters is just plain the wrong name. A co-worker who also watched the movie last night on HDNet (it’s not in theaters yet, but you can get it on Video on Demand or HDNet) came to work mad because he expected wall-to-wall monster killing or something akin to District 9. The first ‘action’ sequence doesn’t even occur until an hour in the film.
However, District 9 could be Monsters’ spiritual precursor. It’s a low budget, almost documentary style film that has decent effects and approaches the theme as a way to deliver a message. District 9 was not so subtly about apartheid as Monster is not so subtly about immigration.
The basic plot is, as they say in video game parlance, an escort mission. A photojournalist has to escort his boss’ daughter through an infected zone to get her back to America.
You see, six years ago, a US space capsule crashed in Northern Mexico containing life from outer space. The space creatures then proceeded to grow and take over the whole top half of Mexico. They’re basically 100 foot walking octopuses who seem to thrive on electrical things. The US built a giant wall along the Rio Grande (hmmm, familiar idea?) to keep the creatures out. Does it work? Well….

However, take out the occasional Monsters and you have a romance/road picture about the photojournalist and the already engaged daughter. The twist in this movie is they are the only real actors in the film. To save money, the director used real Mexican locations and regular folks to fill out the rest of the cast. For the most part, this ploy works and strengthens the docu feel. Only the two principals seem like they’re ‘acting’ in some of the scenes among the more stoic Mexican cast. The writer/director also did all of the creature effects and he certainly knows the best way to cover up any flaws is to have nighttime attacks—the monsters look credible, better than any Syfy production.

The script is pretty strong, only bringing out the Message Hammer ™ in one scene on top of an Aztec ruin. That scene could have easily been cut, we get it, the US sees immigrants as monsters. The giant wall in the back ground drives that point home. Otherwise, the plot moves pretty organically, albeit a bit slow for what the title suggests the pace should be. In fact, many might see the ending as anti-climatic, but I liked the wonder of it and thought it served the romance aspects of the film well.

Back to what struck me most about the film, the details. Lazy movies, especially Sci-fi, will trot out a character to explain what the monster does, how it acts and how we’re responded to it. Monsters doesn’t do that, everything you need to learn about how the world has changed is all in the back ground of this devastated third-world Mexico. Signs, news reports, cartoons, graffiti, implied and overheard conversations, it’s all there. Children of Men and Brazil (and District 9) excelled in this sort of world building, as does Monsters. It’s always nice when a movie doesn’t treat you like you’re dumb.

Monsters isn’t the best Sci-fi movie or as good as District 9, it can be a bit heavy-handed, but it’s nice to see the genre open up and incorporate other genres using the Sci-fi elements as background. However, the most encouraging aspect of Monsters is that truly, really, a gigantic budget isn’t needed to make a quality monster movie. I may like the film more for what it represents than for what it is.

Oh, but really, change the name Monsters. There were more actual Monsters in the Charlize Theron movie Monster than this Monsters.

One possible suggestion for a sequel—Mexican cartels. How do they get all that marijuana north of the border now that giant octopuses roam the land?

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The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)

Dear The Girl…. Movies,

Not all balding middle-aged white men are pedophiles. Yes, many are, but some pedophiles/rapists are younger or have a full head of hair. Or are of another color. Please keep this in mind when making the upcoming The Girl Who Dies of Cancer From Smoking Too Much.


A not quite middle-aged, not balding, non-pedophile/rapist male (white).

The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers from Big, Dumb, American Sequel syndrome. Yes, it’s a Swedish film, but it so badly wants to be an American thriller like The Firm or some such nonsense. Too bad, because the characters are interesting, but the plot and plot points are a bit generic and uninteresting. This is the same complaint I had with the first movie, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, also on Netflix streaming. Interesting characters, boring plot….
The good, who doesn’t root for the punky, chain-smoking, distant, bad-ass lesbian? No one that’s who. Yea, she’s a tech genius (which has become a crime procedural cliche) and she had a horrible childhood. The first film had so much rape and torture of our heroine, Lisbeth, that it felt less like a tragedy and more like a lazy way to let Lisbeth do what she wants. You see, she hates men (understandably) who are mean to women. She commits all sorts of felonies in her pursuit of bad men. Classic vigilante plot line, however in a weird way, it feels lazy. The actress (Noomi something) is so good that it’d be nice if she had a story to match.
The second lead, the older male journalist, also is interesting and complex, but in the second film, he’s three steps behind Lisbeth instead of collaborating. There’s just not much for him to do. So, there’s basically two plots going on simultaneously, one much more interesting than the other. Both plots come to the same conclusions in solving the mystery just by different means. The two main actors are only onscreen in the last scenes. You could almost do the whole movie from her point of view.
As in all sequels, the stakes are upped. Basically, Lisbeth is accused of crimes she didn’t commit. Yawn.

Now, I’d forgive the plot for being generic if it didn’t fall into so many bad and cliched narratives.
Example. You want to get in contact with someone you only know their PO Box. So, you, obviously, mail them with the ‘Lottery Scam,’ tell them they’ve won a big prize only if they’d meet you in person and answer some questions. And you’re a relatively smart pedophile, so yea, you fall for it and meet them. Who does this? People who still believe a Nigerian prince has a lump of cash they just need to send a small amount of money to collect?
Ok, later, you still need to find yet another man who just has a PO Box address. So, naturally, you camp out in front of the post office and wait. Now, even though you’re wanted and on the run, no one notices you and second, the person you’re looking for is looking for you and is also super busy. But of course, not so busy, as to drive twenty miles to go pickup their mail. Like an hour after you set-up.
Dumb. The movie, although very slick and Swedish, is filled with these little plot cliches. Unnecessary car chases, a giant blond henchman, super hacking, it’s almost like a Bond movie recast with a Goth kid.
I’ve been watching a lot of Swedish films lately, and most of them have been interesting, with small plot cul-de-sacs and weird turns, but these Girl movies are the ones Americans will think of, especially with the American remake (I can only imagine the extra stupid in the remake) on the way. This and Let the Right One In (which was good with a kind of weak ending).

The takeaway from this review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire are overrated, especially if you’re a fan of the thriller genre. The acting, look and characters are top-notch, but not enough to overcome the plot. Like the first film, the more I thought about TGWPWF, the more annoyed I became.

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The New York Ripper (1982)

Last weekend, Shells out of the blue wanted to watch a horror movie. That’s one of the reasons why I love her. So we settled in with Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween 2. His first Halloween wasn’t fantastic, but certainly had a great 1970’s look and struck the right tone. Zombie, after four movies, has developed a nice grind house style. I remember reading a bunch of negative reviews of Halloween 2 when it first came out, maybe the horror press has grown tired of Zombie, but I thought Halloween 2 was a fine sequel–a lot of nice cameos, the Zombie look, interesting pacing and a bunch of twists over the original (which disposed of the original’s plot after the first fifteen minutes). No new ground was broken, but I do enjoy how most of Zombie’s so-called good guys are not much better than the bad guys. Basically, I’m a sucker for his look. He knows when to pulp it up and when to pull back.

So, I realized Halloween is on the way and I’m feeling more in a horror mood. October is easily my favorite month of the year. Hopefully, I can load up on a bunch the next two weekends. After combing all the movie channels, there’s not much playing I haven’t seen already (although AMC is making a good run at it this year), so it’s off to the dark reaches of Netflix streaming. (The Roku box does have a few all-horror channels, but they’re pay and the movies are mostly Z-list. More research is needed.)

The best thing I liked The New York Ripper, an Italian slasher film, is all the shots of New York City circa 1982. I was in NYC in 1985 and the film looks like how I remember the city—The Staten Island Ferry, the grimy graffiti-covered subway, the sleazy porn district, the weird peeling apartments. And of course, just the clothes and hairstyles of the people who live there. It’s strange how we remember places we only been to years ago. It’s like Brooklyn still looks like it does in Do the Right Thing. It doesn’t, but memory messes with you.

Plus the high-def transfer of a low grade film made all the griminess pop more. Maybe I should go back and watch After Hours.

The New York Ripper has many of the trappings of Italian horror of the time, the overdubbed English, narrative cull-de-sacs, eye gouging, many suspects, graphic violence and plenty of full frontal nudity.

So, out of the gate a win. Director Fulci made one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Beyond, so while Ripper didn’t live up to the gore and strangeness of that film, it is a pretty decent Gallo with heavy sexual underpinnings.

The New York Ripper is crazed madmen who slashes pretty young women while quacking like a duck. The killings start out as standard TV fare with a hard boiled detective trying to track down the killer with the help of a college professor. Kind of yawn. But after the first third, Fulci starts to follow other, almost random characters, a creepy hustler and a sexually dangerous rich woman. Suddenly, there’s a live sex show, the worst place to put a broken bottle and toe sex. Lots of anonymous stranger toe sex.
Then the red herrings start piling on and the movie turned into a full-blown mystery by the beginning of the third act, the point where the detective thinks he has the right guy. The killer at this point could literally be any character still alive.
Of course, by the end, all is explained and the killer’s motive ends up being pretty unique. He quacked like a duck while he slashed young ladies FOR A REASON. Neat.

If you’re not a fan of Italian horror, especially Gallo, The New York Ripper won’t make you a fan, but if you’re a fan of late ’70’s/early ’80’s slasher pics, the Ripper should satisfy the itch, bad English dubbing and all.

Kind of Black Christmas meets Serpico.

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Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

In November of 2008, I developed a sort of political amnesia. All of the bad stuff of the past 8 years somehow just seemed forgiven and in the past. It wasn’t because I thought the new Obama administration would be extremely good, he was just Not Bush. He’s the political equivalent of the rebound girlfriend. America just needed two or three bland presidents to reset the stage.

One trope about life, especially American life, is that you can always have a fresh start, completely re-invent yourself if you want. Well, remnants of the past are always there, lurking in the back ground. You may spend a life dodging the past as the past worms it’s way out in strange ways. Our political system is ripe with old corruption and problems that are not only systemic, but encouraged by not only the wealthy, but the unwitting public who’s bought into the free market myth.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money, the new documentary from the guys who did Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, follows the rise and fall of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The film connects him to all the major Republican power players of the last thirty years, but more importantly reinforces the point that lobbyists are the real legislation engines running the country.
This isn’t a wonky film, but a breezy one, clearly laying out a life of small corruption unchecked until he was finally caught and what his capture and modis operandi means for American politics. It’s a spy movie masquerading as a political documentary. While many on the right would call it a polemic, I didn’t find Casino Jack to be overtly politically bias toward the right, they were just the current set of douchebags in power.
If you followed the news, you probably know about Jack Abramoff bilking Indian Casinos in the mid-2000’s. However, it’s the story before that one that’s so interesting. Abramoff represented the Russian mob and sweatshop owners in a tiny American pacific island country. He basically got legislators to rubber stamp illegal Chinese immigrant abuses in sweatshops on US soil. That’s the value of the true free market.

The documentary is mostly comprised of Republican interviews, some who saw no harm and others who do have regret. Abramoff helped to create the revolving door of politics and lobbyists in the last thirty years. He truly believed government can and should be bought. It’s pretty horrifying.

See this film. It, oddly, isn’t a downer nor a polemic, but does highlight a problem-the lobbyist problem and how it buys access to power. Obama last week was complaining about the anonymous 503 PAC groups giving to the Republican party. This is how lobbyist control candidates. A modern politician is nothing but a 24/7 fundraising machine to keep his campaign alive. These PACS outspend Democrat by a measure of four to one, but Democrats are not immune. They just aren’t as successful as Republicans at raising money.

I have a simple voting rule. If an issue is on the ballot and one side carpet bombs the TV with ads and there’s almost nothing on the other side, I cote for the side that didn’t spend money. If someone has to spend that much money to convince me, it’s probably not in my best interest to vote for it. The same goes for candidates. We could fix the political system in 20 years if we eliminated money from the process, but that just ain’t gonna happen. For every Abramoff that’s caught, another hundred lobbyist are working within the law doing 90 percent of the unethical crap he did.

Now, I know why I developed political amnesia. It’s just plain better for my day to day happiness.

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OSS 117- Lost in Rio (2009)

Finding a new movie on Netflix Streaming with the Roku box can be a strange process. First, I hunt through my 300-plus list in my queue. I’m almost never in the mood to see any of the movies I’ve put there and that’s why there’s 300 movies there. Also, much of it is for the rest of the family. Then, I go through what’s recently released. Netflix has a strange idea of what constitutes ‘recently’ as some of that stuff’s been in there for months. (Fortunately, the website and iPhone app Instant Watcher is a Godsend for seeing what is absolutely brand new at Netflix streaming). After that, Netflix has a bunch of lists like ‘gritty crime dramas’ and ‘comedies with a strong female lead’ to suggest movies to watch. Honestly, this is where I usually settle on to find something to watch. Also, if I’m feeling antsy, I’ll start two or three movies, watch the first ten minutes and stop before I settle on something I’ll watch all the way through. Most nights, finding a movie takes about 15-30 minutes if there’s nothing new I’m excited about. Sometimes after all that searching, I’ll decide I’m not even in the mood to watch a movie or will only watch the first half.

Yea, it’s a real first world problem. To me, it highlights the new entertainment problem for this generation. It isn’t that we can’t afford new entertainment—the poorest of the poor still seem to have broadband—but that it’s all about maximizing our time with entertainment. Even with the trend toward narrowcasting, the narrow niches are still overcrowded with content. I mean, I just saw someone tweet how excited they were that all of the He-Man cartoons were now on Hulu. Even little kids don’t have the time or patience for ALL the He-Man cartoons. So, now we just know that they are there and that’s like a form of media consumption. Netflix should have a good idea of what I like, I’ve been using the service for over ten (?) years and rating stuff, but still it’s filled with recommendations I’ve seen or have zero interest in.

So, for these reviews, I’ve been trying to go off the mainstream grid more, watching strange old horror movies or foreign films. Just picking shit at random until I stumble upon something good.

I picked OSS117-Lost in Rio after turning down a Bolivian miner documentary (still feeling good about the Chilean miners) and yet another 10 people trapped in a sadistic house torture porn flick.
OSS117-Rio is a French comedy and sequel (hadn’t seen, didn’t know) to another OSS117 movie. It parodies the low hanging fruit of ’60’s spy films like Matt Helm and James Bond. Yea, it’s been done before with the insufferable Austin Powers and half a lifetime of MST3k and Beastie Boys videos.
That said, OSS-117-Rio is pretty agreeable because it’s so aggressively French. They have the clean, campy, split-screen style of the 60’s spy flick down cold. The look is fantastic–plenty of hot bikini-clad girls, bright colors and great locations. The fight scene on top of the giant Jesus that overlooks Rio is genius.
As in parodies of it’s ilk, OSS117’s leading spy is an idiot. On top of that, he’s a misogynist, racist, self-absorbed, vain and over-confident. So, in short, pretty funny. The actor plays it with such wide smile glee that the horrible things he says works in the long stretches of awkward silence. My only complaint besides a few obvious jokes, almost a guarantee in a movie this broad, is that the movie overplays the awkward silence angle too much.
OSS117’s (I spaced learning names) partner is a more stoic female Israeli spy, mirroring Beyonce in those Austin Power movies. The plot concerns OSS117 paying off a Nazi to get a microfiche list of French sympathizers in WW2, so pretty French approach to plot. There’s an American spy whose only English is swearing, a buxom Nazi and an ongoing plot as Chinese assassins try unsuccessfully to kill OSS117 (like the old Pink Panther movies).
There’s not much in the movie that’s ground breaking comedy-wise, but the film is put together in such an agreeable way and played out with such energy, it doesn’t matter much. For example, I’m a sucker for a film that has ten guys shooting at our hero (killing off all the innocent bystanders around him) from five feet away and completely missing him as he picks them off one by one. What’s Up Tiger Lilly did that joke 40 years ago, but it’s still funny.

I’ll probably watch the first OSS117 movie some Saturday afternoon, but I do recommend OSS117-Lost in Rio as a nice diversion for the blues.

Oh, if you’re looking for a great parody, check out Black Dynamite on Netflix Streaming. It’s easily the best 70’s Blacksploitation parody since I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. I laughed my ass off at that one.

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Invasion from Outer Space: The Martian Game (2010)

I like so-called Ameritrash games better than European strategy games. There, I said it.

Essen is coming up and all of the gaming blogs are gearing up for the latest worker placement game or auction game or game that recreates building a 17th century citadel or whatnot. But I’m most excited about the latest Fantasy Flight opus Mansion of Madness, a goober filled box of theme, mystery and asymmetrical play. Loves me the Lovecraft board games. And Fantasy Flight is one of the top Ameritrash game makers.
So, what is an Ameritrash game? While the name sounds negative, i don’t see it that way. I’ve never read a formal explanation, but in my mind, an Ameritrash game is one that emphasizes theme over mechanics. It’s a game with a lot of bits and flavor text and atmosphere. This usually means a certain amount of luck has to be factored in and the winner may not necessarily be the ‘best’ player. Good Ameritrash games tell a story, set a scene. Power gamers tend not to be Ameritrash fans, as the advantages aren’t as easily quantified compared to the more abstract, mechanics-based games. The playing of the game is more fun than the winning of the game.

We have a few more European style games and the ones I like the most, like Agricola and Fresco, have a pretty strong theme. The ones I dislike, mostly Renier Kniza games (I mean, I should like a game called Zombiegeddon, right?), the theme is just an afterthought. Cool mechanics are not enough.

Flying Frog is a relatively new game maker, but they’ve come out swinging like the big boys with two solid games, Last Night on Earth and Touch of Evil.

When Shells heard about their new game Invasion from Outer Space, she put in the order. Well, a few months later, the new game is in and it’s a better game than it’s predecessor Last Night on Earth. Here’s the description from Boardgame Geek:

Invasion From Outer Space, The Martian Game is a fast-paced game of fiendish Martians, Big Top Heroes, and SciFi Movie Action. Players take on the role of either the Carnival Heroes, using their special talents and working together to fight off the Martian Invasion; or as the invaders themselves, waves of Martian Soldiers and Flying Saucers, blasting Humans with Ray Guns and unleashing their vile alien technologies upon the Earth.

Featuring a modular game board, eight Carnival Heroes to choose from (such as the Fire Breather, Strongman, or Jo Jo, the dancing Bear), an army of Martians to start the invasion (including Martian Champions such as the dreaded Zard Beast), and several different Scenarios to play that drastically change the game; Invasion From Outer Space is designed to create a cinematic feel as the story and game unfolds.

Also, as Invasion From Outer Space is built using the Last Night on Earth game engine, the two games are fully compatible. With ease, players can now have their Martians invade the small town of Woodinvale, Zombies attack the Carnival, or even play a massive game with up to three independent factions (Heroes, Zombies, and Martians). The possibilities are endless.

So drop those roasted peanuts, strap on your jumpsuit, and step into the spotlight…the Martians are Coming and the Invasion From Outer Space has begun…

The game uses the Last Night on Earth engine and can be played alone or combined with LNoE for Martians versus Zombie fun. We have LNoE and all of the supplements and Invasion fits in nicely, both from a graphic and gameplay stand point. I’m a fan of Flying Frog’s photographic style of character boards and cards. Hey, you can even be a bear against the Martians.

If you’ve played LNoE, you’ll pick up Invasion quickly. The rules of conflict are pretty simple die rolls with lots of modifiers. The Martians are easier to kill than the zombies, but can shoot Ray Guns and deploy bigger Martian creatures and tech. So, the longer they’re in the game, the more powerful they are. This is not a symmetrical game, the Martian player will win more than the humans. It’s a fact. I played twice as Martians and won both times, although the humans did get close. Unfortunately, both games came down to a few bad (or in the case of the Martian player, good) die rolls. You really can be ruined with a handful of bad die rolls. So goes the invasion.

The game isn’t a simple war game, but built on scenarios. You have a certain number of turns to finish a goal. Mostly, the humans have to stop the Martians from accomplishing some goal. Outlasting the Martians does seem the best way for the humans to win. The human player is individually stronger with many more options per turn, but the Martians overwhelm with pure brute numbers.

How is Invasion better than LNoE? Two ways. One, the carnival theme is just plain more fun. You can play a bear! Visit the funhouse, coral a crowd, shoot yourself across the board or put out a fire. Two, and more importantly, there’s much more for the Martian player to do. In LNoE, it seems like the zombie player was just shuffling along, cycling through cards to get any advantage. Little strategy and mostly luck. Yes, the game is still very luck-based, but the Martians seem more in control and tactical. This balances out for the humans because they’re just so darn easy to kill. (In LNoE, the humans were smart just to stay away or only do range attacks.)

In keeping with Flying Frog tradition, Invasion also comes with a music CD to play in the back ground to help set the mood. It’s pretty simplistic carnival/space music and OK, but not as good as the precious game CD’s. But no deal breaker. Also,in Flying Frog tradition, new scenarios should be showing up on the website for free. A suggestion for future expansions, make an expansion that further joins Invasion to LNoE, much like Steve Jackson’s Munchkin’s Blender sets. Also, more humans, the first batch of eight humans seems pretty close to some of the humans in LNoE, at least in abilities. Some kind of long distant sharp shooter would be awesome.

So, if you own Last Night on Earth and even like it a little bit, you should buy Invasion. If you’re looking for a fun beer and pretzels game and are attracted to the Mars Attacks! Theme, check out Invasion. The bits are nice, the theme is solid and the Ameritrash is strong.


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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

I’ve been wanting to see Nicholas Cage go full-on crazy for while now. I’m talking late 80’s, early 90’s freak-outs like Wild at Heart and Vampire Kiss. Too many generic action movies have made Cage a bit soft. I know he’s a big star, but he makes 10 movies a year it seems like, one could be nutzo bananas.

So, I had high hopes for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call. I vaguely remember the first movie from 20-odd years ago with Harvey Keitel, a mess of drugs, sex and bad behavior. Plus, director Werner Herzog’s a good director with some adventurous tendencies. The cast also seemed hopeful–Val Kilmer needs to go psycho every once in a while, Joukim Phoenix is having an oddball year, and Brad Douriff is reliably crazy. Boy, Crispin Glover, where are you?

Bad Lieutenant is an amiable enough of a failure. Everyone does fine in the picture, but the movie never really gains enough weird momentum. It needs to go to eleven, but stops at, say, seven. Nick Cage is a nice assembly of strange ticks, the pained walk, the sad-dog puss you see above, a mumbly delivery and occasional sharp turns into wild-eyed manic territory. Unfortunately, the film seems a bit shy to let that freak flag fly. There’s a few oddball drug-fueled moments, usually involving iguanas and alligators.
The whole final third should have had the nervy energy of the last third of Goodfellas, but only hinted at it.
Plus, the ending is a giant 180. I can’t talk about it, but I must say I was surprised and not really in a good way. I honestly thought it was a dream sequence.

Ok, Nick Cage is a bad lieutenant. He does drugs, gambles, blackmails girls for sex, but at least he won’t murder. And he does care about his job. Generally, he does these things for what he thinks are good reasons. The TV show, The Shield, did this conflicted character study much better. (Granted, they had more time.) In the first half of the film, his smaller crimes don’t really work out and compound into bigger problems. These bigger problems cause him to go darker and be a badder lieutenant. The central murder mystery is generic, but the post-Katrina Nawlins backdrop (a new sub-genre of film) is used well, especially in the poorer areas of town.

I do like Nick Cage’s slightly mannered weird performance. He seems like a alien, especially up against rapper Xzibit’s subdued bad guy and a more earthy performance by Eva Mendes as his call girl girlfriend. (She’s in lingerie in one scene, so that’s a plus.)

At the end of the day, this movie sets up a promise to take a journey to crazytown and sort of backs away from committing on all levels–story, acting and directing. Maybe I’m jaded and others will find Port of Call New Orleans completely captivating, but I just wanted more.

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Fiasco RPG (2009)

I love it when a plan falls disastrously apart.

Fiasco, a quick one-session paper role playing game, aims to recreate bad day and black comedy movies like Burn After Reading and Fargo. It’s GM-less, for 3-5 players and takes under three hours to finish from character creation to final curtain.
Shells and I have been looking for more RPG’s to play and this storytelling game is a nice way to warm up to larger RPG’s. It was definitely the highlight of last week’s Nukecon. So much so, I bought the PDF of the game ($10) from RPG Now when I got home.

Fiasco is a gateway game for the highly dramatic, funny and weird among us. You will need to get heavily involved in the storytelling, but there is no number crunching or stopping down to roll die to determine story outcomes. Your existence as a character isn’t depended on a die roll. You don’t even have a character sheet.

Let’s start with character creation. All the characters are described by just a few words on index cards. Every person has a defined relationship to the person on their left and their right written on the index cards. For example, ‘angry ex-lovers’ or ‘business rival after the same goal’ or ‘siblings.’ These relationships are determined by the play set, the bones of the game. Bully Pulpit games has released a bunch of free play sets which run from 1963 Dallas to a Spinal Tap-like band to Suburbia. Go to the website and check them out. If it sounds intriguing, you may like the game. Each play set is basically a different genre and setting of your story. To determine your relationship, a bunch of dice are rolled and you or others assign a die to it’s corresponding general relationship and a second die is set to define a more specific detail. Since anyone can place dice for anyone else, you may not have much control over the basic obsessions driving your character. This is a good thing because it forces you to think about the overall story and not just yourself. You are not in a group of people all working for the same goals. There’s no loot or booty or leveling up. It’s all about story and conflict.
Conflict breeds chaos and chaos breeds fun. The second signifier between you and the person to your left or right is either a need, object or location. This puts the story in a certain place, adds a MacGuffin to the story and gives characters reasons to do what they’re doing. Sometimes, very strange reasons. In the session I played, most of the action took place in the basement of an elementary school and involved the ashes of $100,000. Very strange stuff happened involving a deer. The rulebook does a good job of going over the particulars of character creation, but playing it out definitely solidified the logic behind the process. Don’t get attached to your character, horrible things may happen to him or her. Think of this character as an extended NPC from another game and go bananas. Also, assign dice and attributes to others that you’d like to see them play out. Increase the tension, yo.

I think the character creation in Fiasco could easily be used in other more traditional games to add a level of soap opera to a group, especially a mystery game like Call of Cthulhu. If you run an improv group, you could create some random characters and situations and make a pretty funny skit out of the results.

The meat of the story is told in two acts with an epilogue. In the first act, each player can either choose to establish or resolve what hijinks their character is up to. The dice, in two colors—one representing good outcomes and one bad outcomes—are heaped in the middle of the table. If you choose to establish the scene, you start the story and get the ball rolling. At some point, another player will grab either a good or bad die and finish your scene with a positive or negative outcome to the scene. If you choose to resolve, the group sets the scene and you grab a good or bad die to say how the scene ends. In act one, that die is then given to another player. Act one is finished after everyone has a scene. After act one, a tilt is introduced. Basically after a tilt, some unforeseen elements are thrown into the story, as the best laid plans of characters start to derail. Craziness ensues for act two which follows the same pattern as act one, except you keep the dice after setting up or resolving the scene. The dice are used to chart where your character ends up at the end of the story, from pathetic to victorious. You may be dead before the end of the story, but that’s ok, you can still come out a winner, story-wise. The more players the longer the game, but it should all wrap up in under three hours with a break.
Reading the rules, I was unsure how to play. I’m glad I played it before reading the rules as it made the rules make more sense. Although, in my session, we did give dice away more as rewards and not as they were intended, to wrest away control of the story. The rulebook’s way sound more fun.
I’m not saying the rules were unclear, not at all, Fiasco is a breezy read filled with cool quotes, examples, and step by step instructions on what is basically a pretty simple RPG. Playing the game first just internalized the logic behind the game. This a game that makes sense as you play it.
As you can see from the picture below, the graphics evoke a cool ’60’s vibe and the book carries that graphic design throughout, kind of like a funny or strange noir story. Good guys get screwed, bad guys get away and the wishy-washy probably end up dead.

In our session last Friday, we had duplicitous affairs, covered up murders, a Klingon sword, deer sex, defrauding an elementary school, many exposed secrets, the fake ashes of a body, misunderstandings, a prison murder and vacuum cleaner/lawyer/councilman war. Um, yea, strange.

We hope to play again with the teens this weekend, maybe the rock band scenario, and to improve play, I hope there will be more secondary characters and more odd story turns as dice are grabbed. The rulebook encourages seamless story-telling and staying in character with out much stop down.

Fiasco’s a game for people who normally don’t play role playing games and aren’t bound by their conventions. Hey, Humanities peeps, give it a try. Screenplays have probably been written with less prep. And Fiasco’s pretty prep-lite, there’s nothing you need to bring to the table except your own twisted personality.

And with the right group of people, you should be able to create a runaway train.

(Full disclosure, I wrote a supplement, for myself, to one of Bully Pulpit’s other games The Roach of Shab-Il-Hiri, a parody of ’80’s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty called The Cashingtons. I hope to do a play set with the Cashingtons with Fiasco as well. Jason Morningstar, the game’s creator, is fantastically available and supportive of outside input.)

Fiasco should show up on Wil Wheaton’s YouTube show Tabletop soon.

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Barry Munday (2010)

I’m back from vacation. So, back to reviewing stuff. The Internet ate this review last week, so the second half will be written from memory.

Barry Munday exists somewhere between Knocked Up and Office Space. This new indie comedy which isn’t in theaters yet, but played for one night on HDTV Movies last Wednesday, probably won’t have a big theatrical run, but should do okay on cable.
Patrick Wilson (Night Owl from Watchmen) plays Barry Munday, a clueless office drone who’s idea of female interaction is staring at their chest and pretending to be an architect to get them in the sack. Look at the picture below, it’s the kind of comedy where the facial hair says a lot about the character. His best friend has a porn mustache, big sideburns and enters air guitar contests. That sums him up.
In the first ten minutes, Barry literally loses his balls. At the wrong end of trumpet in a movie theater. As in almost all ball mangling incidents, Barry begins to re-examines his life. Shortly after, he gets a letter from a lawyer demanding child support from newly pregnant Ginger Farley (The always good Judy Greer) after a one night stand Barry doesn’t even remember.

Since Barry’s boys no longer swim, this is his last shot at immortality. He decides to go for it and take responsibility. So, yea, Knocked Up. The problem is Ginger. Ginger is a classic Judy Greer character, the barely hidden angry and overlooked sister. It’s nice to see Greer promoted from what is generally a secondary character in other movies to the lead role. Barry would also be a secondary character in other movies, because he’s too much of a loser for most films. He’s the guy even the uncool, regular characters in an Apatow movie bag on for being such a clueless douche. And to the film’s credit, the film goes out of it’s way to not only show Barry as not only flawed and kind of dumb, but then to show him trying hard to grow up. Most dumb guys try real hard. He has a classic, generic arc.

Ginger berates him for ninety percent of the film and he takes it until she sort of wears out and gives in. Greer’s great at taking very unlikable stock female characters and giving them some empathy and depth. She’s the highlight of the film. (Why isn’t she a bigger star?)
The secondary characters all fill their roles aptly with some against-type casting of Malcolm McDowell and Billy Dee Williams. Jean Smart and Cybil Shepard play the main characters’ moms with Smart standing out as Barry’s over protective hippie mom. She’s making a nice secondary career of playing flakes. And while Chloe Sevigny certainly is sexy (especially compared to recent roles) as Ginger’s beloved and sexy sister, they really don’t resolve her plot or give her much to do. I bet some giant chunks were left on the cutting room floor. The secondary characters are not drawn particularly deep, but serve as stock foils to bring Barry and Ginger together. It’s all very standard stuff in the broad strokes. Wilson and Greer’s characters are given enough small touches to smooth over the more predictable sub-plots. And by the end of the film, they’re really the only two you’re suppose to care about.

The movie does have two complete dud sub-plots—Barry’s crazy ex-girlfriend (can there be a comedy where the ex isn’t crazy?) and Barry’s intervention visit to a genital mutilation group, maybe it sounded funny on paper, but was completely out of place in the movie, not only coming at the wrong time, but stopping the narrative dead.

I did like how the film went further than what would be the natural stopping point than most similar rom coms (The birth of the baby). The happy ever after took some more time coming and undercuts the popular notion that a baby solves everything and instantly makes weak people strong.
Overall, the movie seems to say that we may not choose our own fate, but we certainly can grow to love and appreciate what fate offers. We make the best of what we’re dealt. That’s a nice sentiment over other rom-coms that loudly declare that love is a pre-ordained destiny.

Barry Munday isn’t a great movie—it’s time-worn plot is nothing new, but there’s plenty of small touches to make the soft comedy a pleasant enough diversion.

Fold some laundry and enjoy.

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