Fat and skinny, elegant and brutal

This line of thinking started when Mike pointed me to the Simple Game System, which I had somehow not heard of before. I was prepared to be skeptical, as most minimalist systems leave me cold,* but I like that dice mechanic.

* What I mean by that is that minimalist systems almost always sound appealing at first, but seem to fall flat in actual play. It turns out that what I most often want is a Fat Game from which I can pick and choose which bits I actually want to use. I don’t know that I have ever played a pen-and-paper RPG exactly as written – I always strip out that which strikes me as stupid and bolt on that which strikes me as awesome. After a while I realized that this is what everyone does, and I stopped worrying about it.

Y-Wings in Death Star trench

That gave me a realization about BattleTech vs the X-Wing Miniatures game. Since London and I got into X-Wing minis last fall I’ve been pretty hot on that game and pretty cool toward rusty old B-Tech, which always takes forever. But one of the appealing things about BT is that it’s a box of parts that you can play with – there are rules for making up new mechs and tanks and they allow people to do things that the game’s designers never anticipated. Whereas X-Wing is very, very lean and balanced and playtested to within an inch of its life, but it doesn’t invite experimentation – in fact, it discourages it, at least for me, because tinkering with the stats or the rules is probably going to break the game.

endgame 2

Also, I’ve been thinking lately about how interesting it is when the playstyle of a game mimics the content. Like, the lean rules and quick play of X-Wing really do make it feel more like a dogfight. It’s all desperation and snap decisions and trying to out-guess your opponent on the fly. By comparison, BattleTech is massive and clunky and takes forever. It’s the opposite of lean. But in a way this is good – sometimes you really want to get down in the mud with some clanking, brutal 75-ton monster and stomp someone’s ass in exquisite and excruciating detail. Or at least I do.

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Star Wars homework: Brick (2005)

Brick movie poster

Part of the Star Wars homework project.

Star Wars connection: written and directed by Rian Johnson, the writer and director of Episode VIII and writer of Episode IX.

From having seen Looper, I was pretty sure going into this one that (1) it would be a mindfuck, and (2) I would love it. I was not disappointed.

The short-short take is that it’s a noir murder mystery set in a high school. I suppose comparisons to Veronica Mars are inevitable. Both feature unusually smart, well-spoken high school sleuths unraveling histories of iniquity that are surprisingly, satisfyingly complicated. Both are set in towns on the California coast where public high schools bring together teenagers from all levels of an otherwise economically segregated community. They even came out at roughly the same time – VM aired from the fall of 2004 through 2007. But all of these appear to be genuine coincidences, since Rob Thomas (VM) and Rian Johnson were developing both projects independently, and apparently as fairly quiet, personal projects, for a long time before they came to fruition.

And in fact, Brick and Veronica Mars feel very different. From reading around online I see that VM is referred to as a noir mystery but I would not have pegged it as such – more of a teen mystery with noir trappings. Whereas Brick is a noir mystery with teen trappings. It’s so noir that if you’re not familiar with the genre, you may spend the entire movie wondering what the hell is going on (and if you are familiar with the genre, you’ll know that is a central part of the appeal).

It’s so noir that it’s strengths and weaknesses are approximately the same as those of the genre itself.

To me, the major failing of many noir mysteries, including Brick, is that the plot only works because characters – especially the minor characters – behave predictably, almost to the point of being Pavlovian automatons. How many times in one of these stories does one of the main characters leak a specific piece of information to X, knowing that X will go tell Y who will then do Z? It may be fun to watch, but it’s not how real people act.

Also, it must be said – no teenagers in the world are as clever and articulate as the ones in Brick. Hell, no people are that articulate for that long. But that’s a trope of both noir mysteries and most teen fiction, so no surprises there. And indeed, it’s more fun to watch unnaturally clever, pretty people for two hours than to watch plodding, average ones, even in movies where rat-a-tat dialogue isn’t a selling point.

What about the movie’s strenghts? The stock noir characters (mastermind, goon, seductress, etc.) translate over very smoothly. Being set in a sunny California town, the movie sort of perches on the edge of the mid-20th-century Los Angeles noir tradition that served up genre-centric hits like Chinatown and LA Confidential and revisionist send-ups like The Big Lebowski.

A lot of reviewers don’t like the complex lingo used by the characters, and admittedly it does take some time to pick up everything that’s being said. That’s almost a noir trope in itself. And for me, the weird argot spoken by the jaded souls in teenage bodies, combined with the standard noir complexity of the plot, had the cumulative effect of worldbuilding in almost a science-fictional sense. As Stephen King once wrote in one of his “Pop of King” columns for Entertainment Weekly, “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to life as I know it, but damned if I can take my eyes off it.”

It is either ironic or deeply fitting that he was referring to Veronica Mars.

Star Wars verdict: I think it bodes quite well. At this point, Star Wars is kind of a genre unto itself, so Johnson’s ability to make an engaging story within the constraints of a genre with very particular tropes is a good sign. Because Brick is a noir, it’s also a sort of picaresque. Noir characters don’t grow, they just bounce off each other. If mapped out, the web of interactions will be complex but each individual interaction will be simple – indeed, so simple that the sleuth can start reaching in and fiddling with the machinery by the midpoint of the story. That facility with what we might call logistically complex stories will come in handy for Star Wars, and Johnson has shown elsewhere that he can write more complex characters that do develop over time. I am hopeful.


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Star Wars homework: Ex Machina (2015)


Part of the Star Wars homework project.

Star Wars connection: lead actors Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason play Poe Dameron and General Hux, respectively, in The Force Awakens and the upcoming sequels.

I saw Ex Machina about a month ago. It has a tight, almost claustrophia-inducing focus on the three leads – indeed, with the exception of one other character, there’s almost no-one else in the movie. I thought that worked well for the story. And it unspools at a very deliberate pace. Which can be maddening – I wanted some parts to go by faster and others to last longer. BUT I think that pacing was deliberate and for me at least it added to the tension, just as the inescapable one-second-at-a-time pace of life out here in the real world can be brutal at times.

The biggest revelations for me were the performances of Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason, whom I’d only seen before in The Force Awakens. In TFA, Poe (played by Isaac) is an emotionally open guy who wears his heart and his deep goodness on his sleeve. The kind of guy who smiles with genuine happiness as he steals an enemy fighter, and greets his lost robot with a completely un-self-conscious shout of “Buddy!” And General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) is a kind of stereotypical Hitler Youth type who keeps his emotions on a tight leash except when demogoguing an imminent genocide, and who plays power politics with the best of them – sending the TIE fighters to blow up Finn and BB-8 when Kylo Ren said he wanted the droid back intact, and then later pointing out Ren’s error in letting BB-8 escape in a joint audience with Supreme Leader Snoke. Kylo Ren probably spent half the movie thinking, “The freaking balls on this guy!”

Wow, was I in for a shock. In Ex Machina, both actors play characters that are so removed from their Force Awakens roles as to be almost antithetical. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman is a closed off, manipulative enigma, and Domhnall Gleason’s Caleb Smith is a tentative, geeky nice guy. He’s not even a good guy – he’s a nervous guy who wants to be good. If you get the chance, try watching both movies within a day or two of each other and prepare yourself for some whiplash.

If I have less to say about Alicia Vikander, it’s because I’d never seen her in anything else, and she’s kind of beside the point, Star Wars-wise. But she certainly gave a remarkable performance as Ava. In fact, she creeped me the hell out, which I gather is not her usual MO, at least from interviews she’s given and people not talking about her as if she’s a psychopath. Vikander’s character is like Isaac’s and like the movie itself: a piece of tighty-wound clockwork that only shows you what it wants you to see.

Oh: the special effects were incredible, in that they did not appear to be special effects at all.

A common theme among people who dislike the movie is that it’s predictable. I think it’s predictable in exactly the same sense that Titanic is predictable. We all know or can intuit the broad strokes of what’s going to happen from about 5 minutes in – but the enjoyment comes from watching it actually unfold.

Star Wars verdict: it bodes well. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason can act. I hope Rian Johnson gives them some work to do in the next two episodes, as they’re clearly up to it.

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Kylo stabbed first


Shirt by Mike Taylor. Get your own at Mike’s RedBubble shop, here.

Geez I have an immense forehead.

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Star Wars homework: the other movies of the actors and directors

Looper poster

The guy who wrote and directed this is writing and directing Episode VIII.

I thought it would be fun to catch up on the non-Star Wars films of the creators and actors of the Star Wars sequel trilogy and stand-alone films.

Here’s the list of people, their roles in the sequel trilogy, and the 14 movies I’ve chosen for homework. I assume that most people have seen Godzilla (2014) and Jurassic World (2015) already, but as the movies closest in budget and scope to the upcoming Star Wars movies, I felt compelled to include them. Beyond that, I have made no attempt to be comprehensive – instead I’ve listed the movies that I have the most interest in seeing. If you want completeness, IMDB and Wikipedia await.

I also did not include any of J.J. Abrams’ work. I assume he’s a known quantity by now, and this list is really looking forward to Episodes VIII and IX and Rogue One, not back (or sideways) to The Force Awakens. But for what it’s worth, I think the JJ film that most directly anticipates The Force Awakens is Super 8.

When I first composed the list last week, the only thing I’d seen from it (other than the two big summer blockbusters) was Looper (2012). Since then I’ve also watched Ex Machina (2015), which is streaming for free on Amazon Prime. More on those movies in other posts.

John Boyega – FN-2187/Finn

Oscar Isaac – Poe Dameron

Domhnall Gleeson – General Hux

Rian Johnson – writer for Episodes VIII and IX, director for Episode VIII

  • Brick (2005) – hardboiled detective story among high school students
  • The Brothers Bloom (2008) – caper comedy
  • Looper (2012) – time travel crime thriller

Colin Trevorrow – director for Episode IX

Gareth Edwards – director for Rogue One

  • Monsters (2010) – science fiction monster movie
  • Godzilla (2014) – science fiction monster movie


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Further thoughts on The Force Awakens


I’ve now seen the movie several times and I like it a little more each time. One thing I particularly admire is the depth of the production design. It’s like ESB, everywhere you look there are details in the environment that make it seem real. I have no idea how much that costs, but it’s a big failing in a lot of sci-fi movies.

I’ve refined my thinking about Supreme Leader Snoke. I’m fine with having him so much in the movie. In fact, it’s kinda cool to see that General Hux and Kylo Ren report to Snoke separately, and that they don’t really get along with each other. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out in the next movie. BUT I think it was a mistake to reveal that Snoke was a giant hologram in the very first scene where he appears. It would have been much better to let the audience think that he might actually be a 30-foot tall dude for most of the movie, and only reveal that he’s a hologram at the end, when Hux comes to report that the planet is about to blow. Keeping people guessing like that has been a traditional strength of Star Wars – it’s a minor thing but it feels like a missed opportunity here.

(Also, I really hope that Snoke is a life-sized hologram of a 30-foot dude, and not a giant hologram of a normal-sized dude. And if he turns out to be like Yoda small, I’m going to be disappointed. How awesome would it be if the final battle of the sequel trilogy was Rey going up against a giant?)


I think the lightsaber fight at the end of this movie is my favorite out of all of the Star Wars movies. In large part because they’re so clumsy and desperate. Kylo Ren is passionate and undisciplined at the best of times, and he’s still reeling from having killed Han and from having been shot by Chewie. And Finn and Rey are clearly trying their hardest but kind of fumbling around. That the fight happens right after Han’s death gives it an emotional weight that a lot of other lightsaber fights can’t match. The big fight with Darth Maul at the end of TPM is still thrilling but it’s almost the exact opposite – everyone is technically super-proficient, and the fight starts with essentially zero emotional freight. Here are two Jedi, here’s a Sith, time to fight, because that’s what you do in these situations.

Also, getting back to the immersive environments, I was astounded to learn that the lightsaber fight at the end happened on a soundstage. I never suspected for a moment that it wasn’t a real forest. And I’ve spent a lot of time stomping around in the woods. Impressive.


It’s kind of funny that Kylo Ren offers to teach Rey to use the Force at the turning point of their battle, because he already has been. A lot of critics have asked why Rey is able to affect the stormtrooper’s mind, without ever having been trained. Because – duh – Kylo Ren had already shown her how, in their immediately previous scene together. Rey’s proficiency in the Force is in part a problem of his own devising.

Rey’s strength in the Force is not – and one of the best things in the movie is that Rey’s abilities come as a surprise not just to Kylo Ren, but to Rey herself. Daisy Ridley gives the best performance of the movie, with her visible uncertainty, exhilaration, and wonder as Rey discovers her powers (and somehow not deploying her million-watt smile). But my absolute favorite thing is that she is only successful at using the Force when she is at peace. In both the stormtrooper mind-control scene and the final fight with Kylo Ren, Rey visibly struggles at first, and makes no headway. But then she calms down, her brow smooths, and the Force flows through her. Dynamite, and a perfect example of “show, don’t tell”. Yoda tells Luke that his access to the Force will be best when he is “calm, at peace, passive”. Oddly enough, I think Qui-Gon kneeling for a quick meditation during the final TPM lightsaber fight, and now Rey acting that out when she uses the Force, are the only times we’ve really been shown that on screen. (Maaaybe Luke when he chops off Vader’s hand in ROTJ and then looks down at his own.)


Perhaps the best thing I can say about The Force Awakens is that it has sufficient depth to reward multiple viewings and subsequent noodling. I am looking forward to the next two episodes, but if for some reason they never get made, TFA would still be a great, rewarding movie.

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What I thought about The Force Awakens

Spoileriffic, so steer clear if you’ve not yet seen it.


Last night, after one viewing (from an email to Mike):

London and I just got back from the movie. Two biggest impressions: it was a hell of a lot of fun. And it was COMPLETELY unexpected. In fact, it kinda dynamited a lot of stuff I thought I knew about the Star Wars galaxy. It feels refreshingly unfettered. Definitely nails the, “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, they became heroes” thing, that the prequels kind of undid for the OT. Dunno yet who, if anyone, Rey and Finn will turn out to be related to. I hope no-one. I hope they just came out of nowhere.

The thing is, it was so weird that I’m having a hard time deciding what I think of it. In some ways it feels like it hearkens back to ANH where you have a bunch of semi-competent doofuses running around raising hell. But it does not feel as structurally clean as the other movies, even the prequels. There are some things that start and then go nowhere, like the attempted release of poison gas on the Falcon – which is no big deal, because it was over so quickly – and the bit where Finn goes off with the smugglers, which feels like kind of a cheap attempted heart-string tug since it doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, the whole section at Maz Kanata’s base felt a little flabby.

I do like it that we really don’t know much about the galaxy at this point, especially who exactly Supreme Leader Snoke is, what he is, or where he came from. Even so, I think he was a bit overused. I liked the slow reveal of the Emperor in the OT – first just a mention in ANH, then a hologram in only one brief scene in ESB, and so on.

I have to go run a late errand before a store closes. Lots in my head to unpack.


This morning (from a chat with Mike):

So, for ages I’ve argued that the prequels have a pretty brilliant underlying structure, especially ROTS. But that elegant structure is largely ruined by the clumsy moment-to-moment execution. TFA is sort of the opposite: the moment-to-moment execution is great, with lots of spontaneity and funny moments and quotable lines, but the larger structure is less elegant. Of the two failings, I’ll take TFA’s any day.

I laughed out loud in the theater several times. Don’t remember doing that in the prequels. Like the Avengers movies, it delivered a very enjoyable experience. People will forgive a lot if they’re having fun. Me included.

John Boyega nearly stole the movie. I loved how he was clearly just making stuff up from moment to moment and hoping to not get found out or killed. Rey is such a great character. It’s nice to have a female protagonist for a change. It was equally nice that the movie didn’t make a big deal of her being a woman. [Occurred to me later: in much the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road never made a big deal out of Furiosa being female and disabled. This is just how the world works now. I like it.]

I just loved the general sense of regular people kind of flailing around, fumbling through saving the galaxy. Very ANH. I sooooo hope that Rey and Finn don’t turn out to be related to famous people. Given Rey’s flashback under Maz Kanata’s castle, I think there’s a decent chance we’ll find out more about her family in the future. I don’t mind having that mystery unravel, as long as it points somewhere new.

Rey and BB8 on Takodana

This evening, after a second viewing:

Just got back from seeing it again. Here is a thing I did not expect: I enjoyed it MUCH more the second time around. And I think I know why.

A small part of it is that the first time around I was trying to “solve” the movie, and it kept going in directions I didn’t anticipate.

A slightly larger part is that I have been conditioned for literally decades that Star Wars movies may have small-scale surprises but the overarching ‘saga’ plot goes in expected directions. TPM was the most jarring break from this, what with taxation of trade routes, etc, but by the time it came out we all knew some of the basic plot elements. After that, AOTC and ROTS had small-scale surprises but we all knew how they were going to end – each movie had to both follow in the footsteps of the one before it, and end at ANH. That limited the scope for universe-shaking revelations.

This expectedness-of-plot, together with the fairly tight (not to say rigid) structure, means that the prequels had a sort of stately inevitability about them, like oil tankers or continental drift. (Or at least that’s how it seems looking back on them from a decade out. At the time I probably felt quite differently.) But now I look back and think, “Oh, of course Character X did Y, they had to for the story to get to Z.” Some of this may just be over-familiarity with the story. But I think a lot of it is down to the characters in the prequels all being Important People with Grand Destinies, as Mike wrote about back when.

TFA is not that at all. It feels very much more seat of the pants, for lack of a better expression. I imagine it’s how ANH felt to most people back in 1977. But it’s not how Star Wars movies have worked for my adult life.

But the biggest part is that I did not realize how embedded in the Expanded Universe I had become [Proof here – Ed.]. I mean, through the RPG, novels, comics, TV shows, and so on, I’ve actually spend many, many more hours in the EU than I have spent watching or even thinking about the movies.

So the first viewing of TFA was super-jarring because almost all of that stuff that I though I knew was gone, like fundamentally overturned and undone. So not only was I trying to ‘solve’ it like I would any sort of logistically complex, swashbuckling movie, I was also trying to ‘decode’ it in terms of what we might call the Star Wars Mythos, but my decoder was running an EU codec, which just didn’t apply at all.

So – and this seems incredibly ironic to me now, only 24 hours later – on the first viewing, TFA struck me as just plain weird, because (to me, at the time) it didn’t feel like Star Wars. But that’s only true from a certain point of view – my conception of Star Wars had been seduced by the EU, and to a lesser extent by the prequels.

Today I flat-out loved it precisely because it felt so damn Star Wars – not the EU, but the old movies, and particularly A New Hope.

I laughed just as hard at the funny bits, and I actually got a bit teary when Han and Leia were talking about their lost son, and when Han’s last action was to touch his son’s face. That didn’t happen the first time (too busy decoding), and I didn’t expect it this time.

Most of all, the movie made me want to stand up and cheer – for Poe when he splashed 9 TIE fighters in a row on Takodana, for Finn whenever something he tried actually worked, for Rey most of all when Luke’s lightsaber flies into her hand instead of Kylo Ren’s. Hell yeah.

Now I can’t wait to see it again.

Mike made most of the same points – in fact he commented during our chat this morning that either of us could have had the conversation solo since we were both saying the same things at about the same times. His fuller review is here.

Also, the structural problems that bothered me last night did not bother me on the rewatch. Possibly they were not that problematic to begin with, but I was shell-shocked and just casting about for something to blame for my confusion.

Anyway, great movie. I think it puts Star Wars back on the right footing, in just about every possible way.

And I still can’t wait to see it again.

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