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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Star Wars Holiday Specials Through Non-Fan Eyes

I’m about a third of the way through reviewing the Star Wars movies as a non-Star Wars fan. Since it’s Thanksgiving, the start of the holiday season, and since Wookie Life Day was last week, it seems like a good time to take a break and review the Star Wars Holiday Specials.

Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. There are two of them.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Star Wars Holiday Special (RiffTrax)

Rating: D
RiffTrax Rating: A

I did not see the Holiday Special when it first aired. Or maybe I saw a few minutes while switching channels. I’m not sure. I only know that I didn’t deliberately look for it, because I hadn’t seen Star Wars yet and wasn’t entirely interested.

But I did see the special in a fully-mocked RiffTrax version. I’ve watched it a couple times now, and I’ve tried to interpret what it would be like, as a fan, to eagerly tune in and see … that thing. It’s very bad. Recently, Frank Conniff (I think it was him) mentioned that it almost killed Star Wars, but definitely killed TV variety shows for a couple decades. I saw a number of variety shows before that special aired, and they got worse over time, but I don’t think I’ve seen a variety show done that badly before. And the cartoon in the middle? I know there are some Star Wars fans who claim that’s the only good part of the special, because it introduces Boba Fett, but really, it’s only “good” by comparison. It’s really poorly written and the story makes no sense.

So why have I watched this a couple times? It’s not because I enjoy the cruelty it must have inflicted on the fans. I feel very sorry for what they had to go through. No, I watch the RiffTrax version because the riffing is enormously funny. I saw this for free via a YouTube video someone uploaded without authorization, and then, THEN, I paid for my own copy, so I can have it all to myself. And that copy is now a better video tape transfer than before, so it was worth it.

The tape the RiffTrax crew used includes the commercials that originally ran in one geographical area, which lends a certain additional comic value, as does weird moments in the show itself, such as Chewbacca’s family making futuristic communications on what looks like a TRS-80 Model III. or an Imperial Officer watching Jefferson Starship perform a cheesy '70s song on a video screen.

Favorite lines (only a few of many!):

“Santa’s death armada!”
“It’s a unique idea, watching a farm animal open a present.”
“How come they haven;t made a Pujols candy bar yet?”
“[R2D2] actually said ‘I find Boba Fett’s popularity as inexplicable as Nickelback’s!’”
“It’s like an entire band of Paul Shaffers!”
“This has got to be how the Heaven’s Gate crowd envisioned their final moments going down.”

LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

Rating: C+

I’ve seen the first LEGO Movie, and the LEGO Batman movie, and enjoyed both, so I was looking forward to the new for 2020 LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. I figured it might be as good.

First impression: Man, I guess I should have watched everything else, ever, before watching this. It has references to a couple movies I haven’t watched yet.

Second Impression: It’s supposed to be a comedy. Although it’s better than the Star Trek: Lower Decks “comedy”, it reminds me a little of that: not the same rapid short-attention span delivery, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, just amusing and in a couple places I did actually chuckle. Certainly, the big battle between Darth Vader and… well, I won’t spoil it. Because although in general I think it’s only C-tier, the extreme fans of Star Wars who are familiar with many corners of the universe will probably enjoy it quite a bit. So, I recommend it to them and to people with kids who like Star Wars. It’s a pretty well-made special, even if only a little better than average.

(And yes, it’s connected to the original holiday special, not only because it’s about Life Day, but also because Chewbacca’s family from the original show up. No Bea Arthur or Harvey Korman, though.)

Next Up: Not completely decided on this yet. I’ll decide by next week.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Star Wars V Through Non-Fan Eyes

I, someone who’s never been that into Star Wars, have been watching or rewatching all the major movies to give them another chance and try to understand them more. So far, I reviewed Star Wars IV: A New Hope (pretty good,) Rogue One (average,) and Solo (slightly above average.) Now it’s time to rejoin the story of the original trilogy.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rating: B

In a way, this movie should be better than A New Hope, because it’s not as flippant and breezy as the first, plus Lucas would have a chance to see what didn’t work in the first and could tweak the material to make it better. Part V is certainly more serious and has what feels like a greater level of threat, without being too serious or full of itself. The humor is sprinkled throughout the film to keep it from getting too dark. There’s also moments with greater visual or emotional impact than Rogue One or Solo, making it clearly better than either of those films.

However, the movie starts to drag predictably around the 40 to 50% mark. The scenes sometimes seem to miss cohesiveness in places, making it more obvious that some scenes were added for reasons that had nothing to do with the plot, but more to do with formula and design by committee. And although Han and Leia’s romance was set up in A New Hope and I was expecting it to continue, I thought the dialogue would be better or at least marginally convincing to support it. It feels forced, cliché.

And let’s not forget Yoda. I don’t much like him. It’s true I have a prejudice against obvious muppets in semi-serious movies, but I gave the muppetish aliens in Part IV a pass, so I should give Yoda’s appearance a pass as well, for the same reasons. But Yoda;s character, as written, is just unconvincing as a wise master, and his philosophy doesn’t even pretend to be deep. I don’t feel like Luke learned anything of importance from Yoda that he couldn’t have learned from talking to a couple older ordinary people.

So, although Empire is clearly B-tier, I feel it’s not quite as good as A New Hope. It does leave us with a good cliffhanger, though.

Next Up: Another brief detour, just for fun.

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Monday, November 23, 2020

Solo: A Star Wars Story Through Non-Fan Eyes

So far on my quest to give the Star Wars saga a second chance and attempt to understand why fans love it so much, I’ve reviewed the original movie, then back tracked a little to review Rogue One, which technically happens immediately before A New Hope but works better, or as best as can be expected, when watched immediately after it. And now, I’m doing another flashback before I continue the original trilogy.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Rating: C+

I was at first planning to continue on with The Empire Strikes Back, but decided from what little I knew about Solo that I should do it next. This is because the best place to look at Han Solo’s backstory seemed to me to be very soon after he’s introduced and is still fresh in our minds, but before we explore more of his future. Seeing who he once was may shed a light on what he does later.

Whether that worked or not, I’ll decide later, after I’ve watched a few more films.

As far as this film, though, it moves at a pretty good clip for most of the movie, but gets kind of draggy in the middle. In case anyone was wondering, the way I decide how sluggish or tedious a movie is, is to wait until I ask myself “How much more of this do I have to sit through?” This happened for Solo at the 40-minute mark and again at the halfway mark, but didn’t feel that way at all at the 30-minute mark.

What was noticeable at the beginning, though, was that most of the shots were shadowy or hazy. Not a very good look, visually. But even when the film switched to brighter scenes with more color, none of the shots were all that memorable, except maybe the train heist and the Kessel run… and that, unfortunately, didn’t look like space. A very bad thing to happen in a space movie.

On the upside, despite the movie’s focus on lowlifes and antiheroes, it had a bit more humor and spirit in places than Rogue One. It also didn’t seem to have as many awkward references to other Star Wars elements; references were certainly there, but they seem to be worked into the story better and not just fan service. I decided that the high points were more than enough to make up for the draggy bits and so-so visuals, making the movie slightly above average.

Next Up: OK, back to the main story…

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Rogue One Through Non-Fan Eyes

Previously, I reviewed Star Wars IV: A New Hope and decided it was a pretty good movie, even for a non-fan like me. Rather than go in either production order or chronological order, I chose Rogue One as my next film to watch.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rating: C

The reason why I went to Rogue One before continuing onto the next film in the original trilogy is that this film comes chronologically before A New Hope and probably has more impact if the two are seen close together, rather than with a lot of intervening films. However, I’ve seen it before, and I remember it being on the grimdark, downer side, thematically. It’s better to open on an upbeat, adventurous note with A New Hope and then do a brief rewind to see the sacrifices made before A New Hope begins.

That was a good call, but there was something I didn’t expect. I didn’t remember much detail from the first time I saw Rogue One, but I remember liking it well enough, not really seeing much difference, aside from tone, from the original movie. Based on foggy memories, I was expecting to rate it a B, maybe plus or minus. But rewatching it? Nah, it’s just a very average C movie.

The problems that keep it from rising to the level of “good movie, would recommend” mostly revolve around too much plot clutter and tedious stretches of action. For a good part of the first act, it’s not entirely clear what the movie’s going to be about, who is on the screen, and why we should care. Eventually, we figure out Jyn Erso is the main character, and the story is about reuniting with her father, with the complication that he may be on the side of the Empire, and she’s not sure which side she’s really on.

The problem is, the movie is at least half an hour longer than it needs to be, because it has an overly long, overly complicated final act about getting the Death Star plans. There’s a lot of “Get the thing and put it in the thing so we can do the thing, but these other guys have to get the other thing and move it to the third thing or we can’t do our thing, but when we try to do that, we find out we have to do yet another thing, which means we need a different thing, and then this thing happens…” and so on. It’s all kind of contrived, with way too many characters, most of which we don’t know, but we’re supposed to care about them, and they all have to be there because there needs to be a big fight that’s bigger than the one at the end of the original Star Wars movie or any of the other movies.

It’s movie design by formula, which will only get you so far.

So, although I still disagree with the fans who think this movie is terrible, I can’t agree with other fans that it’s pretty good. It’s just average. If you need a steady fix of Star Wars, this will do it for you, but it’s nothing you need to see.

Next Up: I still don’t go where you’d expect.

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Thursday, November 19, 2020

Training Before Gaining New Class Abilities

I’ve been discussing my idea for merging the rules for changing classes and nonhuman multiclassing in a couple other places, and there may be a need to further limit having more than one class. As it stands, it takes longer to add a level if advancing in more than one class, and hit dice or hit points can be much lower than you’d expect for a given number of experience points. But some people have expressed the worry that making it easy to add a second class and keep the benefits of both means that players will always choose to add a second class, regardless of which classes are available.

One possible solution: require more in-game roleplay challenges to truly use an added class. For a character’s first class under standard rules, it’s assumed that:

  • Fighters know how to use all weapons
  • Magic-Users know all 1st level spells (or have a free spellbook containing multiple spells)

When adding these classes as a second class:

  • New Fighters have higher combat ability with any weapon they already know, but must train with other weapons they want to learn
  • New Magic-Users must locate spells to add to a spellbook before they can cast spells

New Thieves aren’t as limited, but you might require some training before picking up the class abilities. New Clerics might require locating spellbooks or not, depending on how you interpret cleric spells.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Star Wars IV Through Non-Fan Eyes

Now that I’m done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe reviews (except for a few more surprises…) it’s time to move on. A while ago, I promised I would give the Star Wars series another go, and give it a fair chance this time.

I was never a Star Wars fan, and skipped several of the movies for this reason. However, I realize how huge the series is for many people, and I want to give it more attention, watching it alone without distractions, in an attempt to see what makes it feel special. I also want to watch the movies that the fans don’t love all that much, as a non-fan, to see if they are really so bad.

So I’m going through it one movie at a time, in a somewhat unusual order I think will work best. I decided that I’m not going to go in either chronological order or production order, and certainly not machete order, skipping the supposed “bad” films. All the live-action theatrical films will get their chance, and I’m going with a modified production order with some movies shuffled to other locations based on how I think they will affect the way the sequence feels.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

I’m starting with…

Star Wars IV: A New Hope

Rating: B+

When I first saw this, I thought “OK, reasonably good movie. Didn’t hate it.” I might have given it a C+ back then: not something I’d pay for to watch alone, but entertaining enough and maybe fun to watch with friends.

Watching it again, alone, and focusing on how it’s made and its emotional impact, I think it’s a better movie than I gave it credit. I don’t think it’s an A-tier movie, because in a way it’s too breezy, not really dwelling for long on anything or exploring what the characters feel, although there is a brief emotional moment or two. It’s at least B-tier, though, a movie worth recommending. It moves at a pretty steady pace with just tiny moments where the pace changes for effect.

I gave the movie a B+ instead of just a B because I recognize how influential this movie turned out to be. It should get a slightly stronger recommendation. I considered marking the grade down because I don’t like the design of some of the aliens, mainly in the cantina scene. I decided that (1) That’s a personal preference, not inherently bad, and (2) It happens only in a few short scenes.

(I did see the film before Lucas went back and digitally enhanced it, but watching it now, I’m actually OK with the CGI Jabba. I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but I imagine I’ll have a few unpopular opinions as I work through the series.)

Side Note 1: I was surprised that Darth Vader turned out not to be the main threat in the film. I tried not to think about what I know about the rest of Star Wars, but I still had this impression of Vader as the person in charge, the hand of the Emperor himself. But no, he’s not in charge, just a really powerful subordinate. He didn’t design the Death Star, doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of its usefulness, didn’t order the destruction of Alderaan, and seems a tad reluctant when carrying out some of Peter Cushing’s plans.

Side Note 2: At one point, Vader says Obi-Wan doesn’t plan to escape. Ironically, that was his original plan. Obi-Wan has no idea that Leia is on board or that Luke decides to save her. He doesn’t change his plan until after he disables the tractor beam and encounters Vader.

Side Note 3: I know Stormtroopers are the butt of many jokes because of their marksmanship, but really, in this movie, the heroes are hardly any better. They hit a tiny bit more, but not much.

Next Up: I’m heading a different direction than you’d expect.

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Monday, November 16, 2020

Merging Class Change and Multiclassing Rules

A recent forum discussion on class changes got me thinking about condensing some of the rules around changing classes vs. multiclass characters. As you all know, the Greyhawk supplement introduced the rules for multiclass nonhuman characters which survived in AD&D 1st and 2nd edition and in the various lines of “Basic” D&D (B/X, BECM.) Any nonhuman (except possibly halflings) can progress as two or three classes simultaneously, splitting their experience between all their classes.

This is in contrast to the rules for changing classes, which seem to be limited to human beings in Men & Magic:

While changing class (for other than elves) is not recommended, the following rule should be applied: In order for men to change class they must have a score of 16 or better in the prime requisite (see below) of the class they wish to change to, and this score must be unmodified. A Cleric with a “strength” of 15, for example, could not become a Fighting-Man. In any event Magic-Users cannot become Clerics and vice-versa.

M&M, p. 10

However, at the time that was written, neither dwarves nor halflings could be any class other than Fighter, and elves were limited to Fighter and Magic-User, with special rules for progression that have been a matter for violent debate for years. Many people wind up using the Greyhawk multiclass rules instead, even when not using anything else from Greyhawk, simply because it seems to be better explained, even thought it leaves open a couple questions: Can a single class elf add a second class later, or is the character locked into just the class(es) they start with? How do you handle hit dice? Do multiclass characters split XP between all their classes even after they can no longer advance in a class? (Greyhawk says “yes”, but do all editions? It seems to be a common question…)

In contrast, the rules for changing a class are pretty simple, and could be even simpler. So why even have separate rules for nonhumans? What does it add to the game?

I propose these rules for training in more than one class:

Characters start with one class, but may add a second
or third class at any time if they have high enough
prime ability scores.

  • Starting Level: Last level earned
  • Current Class: Last class added
  • Hit Dice: Best of previous hit dice or current hit dice
  • Hit Points: Roll for increase when hit dice increase, otherwise keep previous hit points
  • Current XP: One total value, no splitting across classes
  • XP Needed for Next Level: Total XP needed for next level in each class
  • Attacks and Saves: Best for each class

Default prime ability score needed to add a class is 16+,
but may be lowered to 13+ at the GM’s option.

Nonhuman races have two designated classes that do not
require minimum scores, and so may be added at any time
(For example, elves may add Fighter or Magic-User ability
even if Strength or Intelligence are 12 or below.) However,
they may have a cap on combat ability, saves, or max spell
level.

You will notice that under these rules, players don’t track separate levels or XP for each class. A Fighter/Magic-User who wants to advance to 2nd level needs 4,500 xp (2,000 xp for 2nd level Fighter + 2,500 xp for 2nd level Magic-User.) This is easier to handle than writing “Level 1/1 Fighter/Magic-User” or keeping track of XP for each class. The benefit is that abilities in all classes continue to advance with each level, but it takes longer to reach the next level. The downside is that characters only earn hit dice from one class, not all classes.

If a 4th Level Fighter decides to become a Magic-User, here’s what happens:

  • Starting Level = 4
  • Hit Dice is 4, and won’t increase until 8th level
  • Current XP is 8,000+
  • Character reaches 5th level at 36,000, instead of 16,000 (Fighter) or 20,000 (Magic-User)

Other penalties could be added, but these rules seem pretty severe on their own, without having the fiddly-ness of existing rules.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Marvel Reviews: Helstrom

Last month, a new Hulu streaming series tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was released, the first new Marvel content in a long time. I didn’t get a chance to watch it when it was released, because I was still finishing up the movies. But now that I have the time…

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Helstrom

Rating: B-

This series was meant to be part of a more horror-oriented offshoot of the MCU, along with a Ghost Rider series that has since been cancelled. I’m guessing it’s also going to be the last Hulu MCU series, because of office politics at Disney. So, Helstrom is not related to the other Hulu MCU series (Runaways) or to Cloak & Dagger. It’s also pretty much cut off from the rest of the MCU. with the only tie-in (again) being Roxxon… or, at least, the Internet claims they mentioned Roxxon, but I certainly didn’t spot the reference.

The Helstroms are fighting demons, both literal and metaporical, while uncovering truths about their family’s past and repairing their relationships. That’s about as much as I can say without spoiling anything. The feel of the series is close to a superserious horror film, or to Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer during one of their bleak and depressing moments. Imagine taking one of those shows, removing almost all the humor and the “monster of the week”, and just focusing on a single story for ten episodes.

It’s… good, but slow. Especially the fourth or fifth episode, when they suddenly realized "Hey, we forgot to explain the backstory. And there’s nothing surprising about the last few episodes. I think the series might have been better if there were two or three episodes with their own story. Not quite “monster of the week”, not quite "one conflict stretched out over ten episodes, but something in between.

On the plus side, once I realized Daimon Helstrom was the character I remembered as Son of Satan and remembered how ridiculous his costume was, I was glad this show depicts him more naturally, sort of like a John Constantine rather than a bare chest and spandex kind of guy armed with a pitchfork. Although there are hints of that near the end.

I had a tough time deciding if this was an average show with some standout moments that raise it above a C, or a better-quality show hampered by streaming series production values and a very cliché approach to the story. Eventually, I settled on the B- side, but keep in mind how close a call it was before deciding to watch it.

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Marvel Reviews: MCU Teen Shows

In addition to ABC and Netflix, Marvel did a couple other MCU series aimed at a younger audience: one on Hulu, one on the Freeform cable network. I think hardly anyone has seen this, since there’s been nowhere near as much promotion as for the Netflix shows.

I don’t think my reviews are going to change that.

(There’s also a second series on Hulu that was just released last month, Helstrom, but as far as I know, that’s not related in theme or target audience to these two. I haven’t seen it yet, but will be reviewing it later.)

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Runaways

Rating: C+

Marvel’s Runaways is a streaming service show, only available on Hulu, which explains why no one has seen it. It’s about a group of teens, some with powers, some with gadgets, who run away when they discover their parents are up to some horrible crap and are, basically, crime bosses. This is mostly intended to appeal to people who like YA rebel stories, like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Mazerunner, or Mortal Engines.

My main thought during the entire first season was “When do these kids actually run away?” Because SPOILERS, they don’t run away until the very last scene of the very last episode of the first season. And they really should have run away earlier, not just because it’s part of the title, or even because what’s actually going on around them is so terrible. You basically only need one episode to set up the conflict between the parents and one or two episodes where some of the kids still need convincing. Everything else could be handled after the kids run away. It would have been far more tense and the pace would have been much faster if the show had been done that way.

It’s not a bad show, just average, but there are a couple good scenes in there. And, unlike the Netflix shows, there’s more superpowers and superscience. There’s even less tie-in to the rest of the MCU, though, except for some cross-over episodes in Season Three with Cloak & Dagger. It’s mostly just a couple corporate names, like Roxxon. If you watched this without knowing every tiny bit of MCU trivia, you wouldn’t even know it’s a Marvel story. There is a possible tiny hint of a connection to Doctor Strange in the third season, just based on some Strange-style magic being cast.

Cloak & Dagger

Rating: C

Unlike the Runaways, I had actually heard of Cloak & Dagger because they shared Strange Tales vol. 2 with Doctor Strange. The only stories I remember, though, were “Cloak meets Dazzler” and “Dagger meets Black Cat”. It’s basically another teen-oriented show, although less about rebellion or even love, more about growing up.

Cloak & Dagger suffers from the same disease as Runaways and the Netflix shows: very slow plot development, very slow mastery of their powers. I didn’t really feel anything stood out as higher quality in the series, although I did like the second season a little more than the first. Again, the only tie-ins to the rest of the MCU are miscellaneous names like Roxxon. There isn’t even a tie-in to Runaways; I think one was planned, but the series was cancelled before they got to that point.

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