Too clever by half-elf: Dungeons & Dragons No Honor Among Thieves

Over the weekend I was cajoled into watching Dungeons & Dragons: No Honor Among Thieves

I did not enjoy it.

The problem was that I wasn't sure if I was watching a satire or a serious adventure film.  There were plenty of obvious laugh lines aimed at D&D players, and yet the pacing and general structure of the film indicated that I was also supposed to take it seriously.

This was impossible, because as the film itself demonstrated magic and do almost anything, and no sooner would this assertion be declared false than magic would in fact solve whatever problem was at hand.

This goes back to my repeated critiques of super-hero films and now Disney Star Wars, which is that if there is all this non-stop action, when am I supposed to find time to care about the characters?

The more wild and improbable (and unrelatable) the setting gets, the less invested I become in the outcome, because everything appears arbitrary and random.

At that point, if the good guys win, it won't feel like they earned it, they just happened to turn over the right card (or the game was fixed from the start).

This problem becomes doubly acute when the plot is built around a bank heist.  In the real world, I know that locks, walls of steel and massive doors covered by cameras present formidable obstacles.

But in the D&D world, there's probably a spell to circumvent all that - and then a spell to stop that spell, and a spell to the stop that spell, etc. 

As I said, arbitrary and random.

There's also the setting, which has no meaning to me.  Oh, I recognized some of the references from the game, but there's no overarching story of D&D World like there are of Narnia or Middle-Earth.

It's just a tale from the Land of the Knee-Walking Turkeys or something.  The Princess Bride felt far more grounded in that respect.  It make jokes about the genre, but not at the expense of destroying one's immersion in the story.  The fact that it was a story within a story actually amplified this effect - as Fred Savage became more invested, so did we.

Fans of the film have suggested that the digressions, asides and so on represent the course of the game, and in that case, I'd have loved to see a bunch of nerds sitting around the table arguing about what will come next.  Then we'd have to real tension because the story would finally be anchored in some sort of consistent reality.

Instead of being arbitrary and random.

The Duellists - a great, intense little film

While I continue to crawl my way through the Ford Madox Ford biography, I'm also digging back into Joseph Conrad and came across his short story The Duel.

I then recalled that an excellent film of it had been made in 1977, The Duellists.  This was Ridley Scott's first movie and it's excellence gave a huge boost to his career.

The film is an excellent adaptation of a very Conradian tale - a rational, intelligent officer who inadvertently offends a hot-headed comrade and then is forced to fight duel after duel with him against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. 

The film moves efficiently through the timeline, which runs from 1800 to 1816, and the costuming and atmosphere is superb.  The duels themselves are brilliantly choreographed.

It is also an example of using weapons to tell a story and the contrast between The Duellists and the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars is pretty stark.

In short, it is a tight little movie of the kind that simply cannot be made today.

The Roman helmets of The Chosen are driving me nuts!

Okay, I'm a bit late to the party in tuning into The Chosen.  Sue me.

I'm only a couple of episodes into it, and I find it interesting, but...

those Roman helmets!

I hate being that guy who is always pointing out historical inaccuracies in movies, but given the attention to detail, I can't watch scenes with Roman soldier without gritting my teeth.

I mean, on the face of it, they're fine, decent copies of museum pieces.  The chrome shine on them is a bit unrealistic, but I'll allow it.

No, the problem is that the cheek pieces just flap around.  Um, hello?  No one can fight in that kind of gear.  The cheek pieces need to be laced together.

I mean, if an ultra-low-budget show like I, Claudius could get the right, surely The Chosen could have figured it out.  My hope is that some well-wisher got through to the production team and that withing a few episodes the troops will tie those mud flaps down.

A few more words about lightsabers

Earlier this week I posted an article about the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars over at

Right on cue, one of the new Disney Star Wars shows has a character take would should have been a moral wound and essentially walk it off.  Fans are not amused.

As I point out in my piece, the increasing overuse of lightsabers is illustrative of poor writing and increasingly feeble efforts to produce dramatic tension by substituting action for plot and character development.

People who don't know how to write a loaded conversation or create a compelling story will simply resort to extended fight scenes, but the more they resort to this, the less any of them matter.

Having characters survive mortal wounds completely unscathed is part and parcel of this.  Once that happens, the reader (or viewer) ceases to take the story seriously.  This is why in all of my fiction, not a single character has returned from the dead.  I have had characters who people assumed were dead come back, but that's different device which leaves the consequence of death intact.

I have to say that seeing how awful entertainment is these days is really shocking.  I know that the political scene is a disaster area, which is why I avoid it, but entertainment seems to be even worse.  Who approves this stuff?  Is there any concept of quality control? 

This is the consequence of three generations of nepotistic promotion, I suppose.  The current generation of studio heads have no real knowledge of life, art, or their audience - and it shows.


Whatever happened to Hollywood romances?

I was working on a piece for and realized that while I write a lot about movies, I don't really deal with the topic of romance.

Part of this is that for a long time, romantic movies also involved sex scenes.  Since my conversion, I find them very uncomfortable to watch, particularly since we now know that far from being consenting adults, directors pretty regularly pushed women into doing them.  When the films made money, the actresses weren't in a position to object and I think many of them just got used to it as the price of fame and fortune.

That being said, Hollywood mostly seems to specialize in comic book films or the endless sequel/prequel treadmill.  Love stories are simply too demanding, both to write and to act, so why bother?

By the way, it's not like sex scenes are a thing of the past.  Indeed, they've now gotten far more intense, pervasive, and part of streaming network and even television network productions.  Gay sex is now also being pushed into the mainstream with considerable determination.  I recall some gay "romantic comedy" that totally bombed at the box office because it turned out that the vast majority of people aren't interested in that sort of thing.

Still, the fact that money could be found for such a venture speaks volumes about the current age.  There clearly is an element in the entertainment industry that is willing to sacrifice large amount of money in pursuit of non-financial goals.

A Beautiful Mind: much ado about...what?

Before writing this, I looked over the films that Ron Howard was involved with, and the ones I knew were rather formulaic.  This confirmed much of what I felt while watching A Beautiful Mind: it was very formulaic.

It also avoided the core question, which was the cause of John Nash's mental illness.  As someone who has had up close and personal involvement with mental illness, it is very much not a random thing.  I know that there are "genetic links" to it, but that is a fancy way of saying "crazy parents beget crazy kids."

It comes down to the old nature/nurture debate, but I don't think there's any argument at this point that people raised in an abusive household often exhibit abusive behavior.

And that's the gaping void at the heart of the film.  It starts in the middle (a common Ron Howard trait), and so we have no idea what happened to John Nash before he got to Princeton.  This is kind of important, because (as we subsequently learn) he almost immediately has hallucinations.

Did these happen before Princeton?  Did they help inspire him to get there?  None of this is known.  Instead, we have the Mark IA story of a person who craves greatness, achieves it, encounters and obstacle, stumbles, but eventually overcomes it to great acclaim.  The end.

I get that film time is finite, and I would rather have seen a few minutes of flashbacks to his childhood rather than extended car chases and shootouts that didn't actually happen.  By that I mean: you can show his descent into paranoia without flashy action sequences.

Another aspect that is missing is his faith.  Was Nash religious?  I know Hollywood has a consistent allergy to the topic, preferring to simply erase it from biographies.  Everything has a secular, materialist explanation.  Or it's some sort of vague spirituality, usually non-Christian.  (Christians are mean and intolerant because they don't like grooming.)

Anyway, I found it moved rather slow, the plot twists felt contrived and the big reveals weren't.  It speaks volumes that a paint-by-numbers prestige picture got covered with awards, but that's how things are in the present age.


When profit is no longer the motive

I'm old enough to remember when "corporate greed" was regularly denounced as the greatest of all evils.  The profit motive was synonymous with environmental destruction, unsafe working conditions and every manner of harmful behavior.

This was exemplified during the 1980's movie Wall Street, when arch-villain Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) famously pronounced "Greed is good."

The context of the film was that Gekko was a ruthless corporate raider and he was using labor concessions on a recently-acquired airline to boost its stock only to break it up and sell off its assets.  The maintainers, support staff and pilots would all lose their jobs to that a rich man could make himself even richer.

With the benefit of hindsight, the problem was not greed per se (which will always be with us) but an incentive structure that laid a premium on short-term gains over long-term profitability. 

Now, however, we have a new problem, which is that greed is competing against social virtue-signalling, creating an even more toxic situation.  This is a species of Yard Sign Calvinism, where the primary goal is to show the virtue of the people in charge; whether this benefits society as a whole is besides the point.

For example, No Mow May was supposed to boost pollinators, but the lawns that went wild have since been cut and - thanks to a mild drought - are now dead.  A far better option was to simply plant flowering plants and let them remain year-round.

What if the same skewed values prevailed in commerce?  Well, one would see profitable enterprises - and the jobs that sustained them - squandered merely for a passing boost in social status.  Gekko's corporate raider capitalism shifted wealth from one group to another; Yard Sign Calvinism destroys it for "likes" on social media.

I think the former is therefore preferable to the latter because the final determination of profit can be shaped by legislation (such as the tax code) but also by people voting with their dollars.  A robust customer boycott can not only cause the company directly affected to change course, but influence others as well.

But if the company's leadership sees itself as being part of a great moral cause, the boycott might actually harden their determination to maintain their fixation.  I think this is the case in entertainment, where CEOs are incapable of course corrections on failing franchises because they covet social approval more than dividends.  In their case, greed would be a virtue.

G.K. Chesterton long noted the fanatical devotion of many alleged "free thinkers" to various causes, and their willingness to use any amount of someone else's money to feel good about themselves.  He wrote satire, but now it's all to real.

I miss the robber-barons.



Peak Miami Vice: Smuggler's Blues

A burst of summer weather has me watching Miami Vice again, and this time I'm taking my time and savoring the early seasons.  I will be skipping the later ones.

If I could pick one episode that exemplifies the show at its height, it would likely be "Smuggler's Blues."  This is still in the first season and it stars Glenn Frey from The Eagles as Jimmy, a small-time drug smuggler with his own twin-engine plane.

In many ways, the episode is simply an extended music video, featuring the entirety of Frey's eponymous song.  There is an attempt at dramatic tension, but the point of the exercise is simply to sit back and enjoy the ride.

That is something modern entertainment has largely lost.  It's too preachy, too eager to carry a message and a "torn from the headlines" story (which is often based on a media myth).  Miami Vice was no stranger to tropes, but they were fun, and the show was sleek, stylish and just plain cool.

Back then, Hollywood tried to give people what they wanted; today they bully the audience into watching.  Needless to say, it's not very effective.

I do not think it is possible for Hollywood to create a blend like Miami Vice today, combining musical guests at their peak with sleek visuals and fun storylines.


Vampires of Michigan - the Roar of '84?

I'm once again binge-watching the early seasons of Miami Vice and I'm thinking it would be fun to set the next installment in the World Series Championship year of 1984.  It's an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  Obviously there is the George Orwell angle, but 1984 marked a rare moment of unity in American politics.  The notion of a a presidential candidate carrying 49 states is inconceivable today.

Whether looking at Cold War politics, cultural differences and of course the far superior music and entertainment, I think it would be fun.

As to the plot...well, that's yet to be determined.  I've got a couple of ideas and I'm sure some of the same characters will be represented. 

Of course, nothing may come of it, but that's the fun of being a novelist - not just the ideas that are completed, but the ones that are tossed around for fun.

The lost (and found) TV adaptation of Parade's End

One of our commenters made a mention of a 1964 BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End book series (which has three or four books, depending on how one feels about it).

A careful internet search revealed that such a thing did exist and that a DVD was produced not long ago.  I picked one up on ebay for less than $7 (including shipping), which tells you it was not much of a commercial success.

I've touched on the books before (including a lengthy comparison with Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy), and so this review is more of a discussion of the content and quality of the adaptation than a discussion of what's in it.

In terms of the packaging, it's a slapdash production, made in Mexico and featuring generic "wartime" graphics that are actually from World War II and completely inappropriate.

The quality of the transfer is better than I expected, but still flawed.  The audio is particularly challenging, no doubt a function of its minimal production quality.  There seems to be a single microphone on the set, close to the camera, and as characters move farther back, it becomes difficult to hear them.  There is also some distortion rising to static, which gives the sense of actually watching a broadcast with some mild atmospheric interference.  I kept wanting to adjust the rabbit ears.

As to the cast, it's excellent.  This was apparently a breakthrough role for Judi Densch, who is very good as Valentine Wannop.  I didn't recognize anyone else in the cast, but they were all solid in the various roles.

Unlike the HBO production, this gives much more prominence to Christopher Tietjens' time in the trenches, which I liked.  Alas, the BBC also did some bizarre graphics, both for the title credits and also to segue into battle which are dated and cringe-worthy.

While I enjoyed it, I can't say as I would recommend it.  If it were cleaned up and properly restored (especially the audio), that would make a big difference.  As it is, Ford fans will enjoy it, but I can see why they're practically giving these away.