What I'm Watching: Bordertown, Freaks

  • Bordertown: The best of the grim Scandinavian crime dramas. Kari Sorjonen (the Finnish title is just his name), is a borderline autistic, Sherlock Holmes with a memory palace technique, and partner Lena, a Russian ex-FSB cop/thug/defector. There's a wife and a kid, and Lena has a daughter, sometimes, and there are a few too many household drama stories early on, but it mostly lowers that to a background level later.

But most of the series is Kari pursuing really crafty serial killers, including a repeat nemesis, supergenius high school chemistry teacher, not named Walter or Moriarty but oughta be.

Emotionally the show could not be more Finnish. Everyone is stoic and awkward, frosty to their friends, completely closed off to anyone else, until they have a giant emotional meltdown and kill each other. Secrets and actual intentions are rarely revealed and when they are, everyone's glum but takes it. The distance between Kari's emotional flatness and everyone else's emotional bunkers isn't far.

Finland has a harsh and beautiful wilderness, and the cities are the grimmest of industrial shitholes, and then the interiors are mostly sterile black and white unadorned furniture, like Jony Ive set designed it; when you see a warm set it's just jarring. The cinematography and music are great; I'm unamused at the pretense the daughter sings the title song, tho, and in this last season she got way too much screen time doing so. Apparently the actress is a wannabe Miley Cyrus.

I read subtitles fast, and can usually rely on being able to pick up some spoken words, but Finnish is annoying; English lets me pick up enough Dutch, Norwegian, or Swedish to recognize many words, my bad French lets me get a lot of Flemish and Belgian, and so on… but Finnish sounds like gibberish, and these people talk fast; I usually complain about slow-talkers, but here it's a little stressful. So good thing this is on Netflix where rewinding for a complex scene is easy. It'd be unwatchable on 'zon's terrible video player.

S3 switches from overlapping almost-season-long stories to more episodic 2-parters, but there is a continuing story.

Picking on some of the non-plot elements aside, this is just a perfect crime drama, watch it.


  • Freaks (2018): It's Firestarter; this Charlie ^W Chloe is a different kind of little girl freak, but the "psychic powers make your eyes bleed" thing, the father, the low-rent treachery, the government murderers are straight out of Stephen King. The Shop ^W ADF is funded like post-9/11 counterterrorism, not a CIA hobby project.

I'm both amused and horrified by a trick used to get the ADF to kill innocent people, the writer's not original but able to embellish well.

Once you realize the scope of Chloe's, and her family's, and the missing mommy's powers, the question of "is this overreaction" changes to "what would you do for species survival"; altho Dallas probably had it coming. Little Chloe also learns to kill like a teenage boy playing Call of Duty, way faster than a supposed 7-year-old (actress was 9) should. No way she should see this movie or the evil shit her character does.

★★★★☆ — despite the near-plagiarism, this is well done.

What I'm Watching: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster

  • Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964): Both UFO cultists and cops agree, heat wave in winter and meteor showers are weird. A cop is assigned to bodyguard a princess from a small island under civil war. Said princess is contacted by an alien voice and told to jump from the plane, and she never even got her drink! Scientists hike into the mountains to investigate a meteor landing.

I must say, Japan's wilderness looks fantastic. The cinematography on this one, in color!, is head and shoulders above previous films. Even when they go into matte paintings and sets, it looks good. They do interesting cuts, like using a subway car as a wipe. It's almost hard to believe this is Honda Ishiro still, not doing locked-down cameras and super simple cuts or wipes; earlier he was more a director of people and cool events, not using the camera well. Even the rear projections are now fairly close to seamless.

Naoko the journalist and the Princess are both cute as hell. Naoko's cop brother is kind of a doofus, and utterly extraneous to the plot. The bodyguard cop has no personality except brooding and shooting (not very well, he never kills anyone with at least 30 shots), and there's no love between him and the Princess in the first half; all he has is a picture, and she's not herself. Has Honda learned cinematography, but forgotten about romance as the main driver of Human-scale plots?! What a terrible bargain.

The Mothra twins appear on TV, and summon a vision of the Mothra larva. This is a Japan that just lives with the regular existence of giant monsters and magic on TV, I don't see how anyone can mock UFO cultists or prophets from Venus in that world.

"Stay out of Mount Aso, Rodan will emerge!" "Shut up prophet! … OH NO IT'S RODAN AAAIEEE!" Incredibly predictable scene, but perfect "fools die of their folly" scene. Rodan's costume & flying puppet are much improved over the first movie, but it's a little odd being more of a Pteranodon/Roc hybrid now.

"Don't get on the ship!" And at least the important characters pay attention, but the poor sailors are going to meet… well, who else would be in the ocean? Big G's moving eyes look really weird. The suit's otherwise fine, but definitely reaching the end of this first design.

Fools stand far too close to Ghidorah's… egg? Meteor? Spaceship? But someone must witness the birth of a death god. The Princess tells the protagonists the Earth is doomed, and sells it for once. We start to get a real kaiju cosmology here, with planets preyed on or defended by monsters.

Finally we have all the world's monsters assembled, rampaging begins.

The assassins chasing the Princess thru the entire film have been unstoppable, but not very competent, and kind of a waste of time. The plot as it is would happen without them.

Possibly too much of the monster scenes are them arguing with Mothra, rather than fighting, there's only a few minutes of King Ghidorah vs the three defending kaiju. There is a bit of destruction in Tokyo, but mostly it's a beloved peasant village or wilderness at the foot of Mt Fuji. Mothra's very slow and annoying power, Godzilla throwing rocks, Rodan standing around waving its wings, are enough to drive off the dragon. FOR NOW.

★★★½☆ - Needs about 15 minutes less Human time, replaced with monster fighting time.

This is a major influence on my favorite kaiju movie, GMK: Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah Giant Monster All-Out Attack, but there Godzilla and Ghidorah switch places, and the subplots are wiped away so it's just reporter, crazy old man as "prophet", and monsters. And on the latest Hollywood Godzilla King of the Monsters, but there everything is 100x larger than life.

What I'm Watching: Us

  • Us: Another Jordan Peele Twilight Zone flick. Text crawl claims that there's thousands of miles of tunnels of mysterious purpose under America. With the implication that it's full of monsters. So Dungeons & Dragons is real?! Good to know, Jordan. Then there's 20+ minutes of utter boredom back in 1986, when normally I would rate the '80s as the least boring part, very briefly a scene with some tension and the little girl Addy.

20 years later (and it feels like it), the plot starts. Addy's very gentrified, possession-oriented black family settles into their Santa Cruz beach vacation house, get a boat, meet their honkie friend "Josh" and his blonde family at the beach. Nice and idyllic. And then out of nowhere, we get told more of the little girl's scene, and the monsters show up.

Addy gets tied up and terrorized a lot, Dad is utterly useless, but the kids are fairly impressive little survivors.

As a slasher flick, there really aren't enough victims, and it doesn't sustain the tension, it keeps releasing to long "oh that's over" scenes. The killers are more pathetic than terrifying.


There's a lot of weird visuals, which are poorly to never explained. The remake of Hands Across America (a USA For Africa charity event, you may know the song "We Are the World") makes no sense, how did non-verbal shadows work this out? Police or soldiers will just destroy them once it's sunlight. Do politicians have their own shadows, and how would scissor-wielding maniacs get past the Secret Service? The final scenes show helicopters flying over woods, presumably where the Shadows Across America line goes? Why aren't they firing or dropping bombs on these known mass murderers?

Addy has a final descent into the mythic underworld by escalator (her knowing the way down telegraphed her origin, but it has problems, too), where she finds bunnies running loose (but no explanation how the killers raised them down there, or where all the supplies come from), and a long nonsense explanation about cloning and souls.

The duel/dance is passable, but Addy never cooperates with Red's dance, which would've made this fight more interesting. I think especially of Jet Li's The One, where he fights himself, but each has mastered a distinct martial arts style, so the fight's visually amazing. This is… it reminds me of Marvel movies, where there's amazing fight choreography but the actors aren't all up to performing it, so you get a martial artist fighting a drunken bozo.

The final revelation about Addy doesn't make a lot of sense. Addy's awful vulnerable and emotional for a soulless murder machine like the others. Red's croaky voice is from being strangled, fine, but why didn't she ever come up to the surface before? How did she organize a worldwide cult of the shadows to come up at the same time, when they don't talk, or really seem aware?

Obviously I'm pretty tolerant of implausible premises in movies, given my love of kaiju and fantasy, but this one falls apart internally worse than most.

★★★½☆ Good try, Jordan, better than your awful Twilight Zones, but not another "Get Out". Jordan Peele is the new M. Night Shyamalan.

The concept's been around a while: Mirror people, dopplegangers, or faerie changelings, ultimately going back to pre-historic myths. My favorite's in the Nightbane RPG by Palladium Books, where the Nightland (always dark, mirror image Earth) is populated by dopplegangers of Earth people, just waiting for a chance to use a mirror as a portal and kill and replace you (Nightbane also borrows heavily from Clive Barker's Cabal, Great and Secret Show, and Hellbound Heart). I really should dig the books up and run Nightbane again.

What I'm Watching: Unfriended: Dark Web

  • Unfriended: Dark Web: Written and first-time-directed by Stephen Susco, the writer of the American Grudge remakes (which utterly missed the point: The Japanese films were cursed hauntings of familiar, safe places; the American ones set in Japan are hauntings of a person who's already alienated and scared, not to mention that Sarah Michelle Gellar's range doesn't extend this much beyond stabby cheerleader). And it's a Blumhouse film, which is to quality cinema what pickled pigs feet are to cuisine. BUT I DIGRESS.

Do you want to watch 90 minutes of a doofus with terrible hair using Facebook® and Skype® on a stolen MacBook? Because that's what this is. It never takes the camera out of the screen, which is an interesting choice; everyone has a giant selfie-cam in Skype, right? I will say, this may be the only movie I've ever seen use Terminal on a Mac. Also the "Papaya" app for translating speech to text to personally-recorded American Sign Language videos (because the doofus's girlfriend is deaf, and he's too much of an asshole programmer to practice ASL without writing code for it) is unique. Awful, but unique.

But then it goes into discovering the previous owner made torture porn/snuff films for an obscene amount of bitcoin on a darkweb site named "The River", populated by "Charon 68" ("they never made it to 69"), a figure who projects static into all cameras appears, and things get more and more desperate.

A film of just finding the snuff films and chasing down the perpetrator online would be interesting. But the squeamish characters stop the doofus from playing any of the videos for more than a few seconds, eliminating the only actual horror in this "horror" movie.

Then it goes from a slightly fantastical computer horror show, to a secret society of utterly impossible killers and l33t h4xx0rz, and cops that show up in 2 minutes. The last half ruins a perfectly good premise.

I watched the "Extended Edition", which has a bad ending for everyone, but given the super-powered secret society, it's the only consistent ending. There's also an incredibly stupid "Charons vote and think he's enough of a bastard to live" happy ending on the regular edition.

End credits are live-edited into what looks like SSL source code; ironically if anyone had been using SSL, drive encryption, and secured their computers with more than 1-letter passwords this entire script would be impossible. I assure you I keep my snuff flicks (no.) and darkweb bitcoin lockers (also no.) in an encrypted volume with a long password written nowhere else.

This is a sequel/remake of Unfriended, which I have not seen but is apparently an actual ghost haunting Facebook®, which might be more plausible than what I just watched.

★★☆☆☆ — not bad enough to be good, but stupid enough to be funny at times.

What I'm Watching: Train to Busan

A very standard modern zombie outbreak movie, remake of the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake with a Korean train instead of a mall. It's entertaining, but never really tense or frightening beyond jump scares. Lots of fake blood but very little gore, it's no Tom Savini flick.

The most neglectful financier asshole father and his implausibly nice daughter go on a train ride to let her visit her mother (separated, not yet divorced but you know they should be). Rest of the passengers are wrestler/MMA dude & pregnant wife, gay jock teen (well, he's closeted, but it explains his behavior) & his disappointed wannabe-girlfriend, two old ladies, scruffy hobo survivor, awful corporate executive, train crew, and a few extras who aren't gonna get even cardboard personalities. Names are in short supply, and provide no plot immunity, the train's aggressive about whittling down the cast.

The one slightly different take in this is everyone's moral except the asshole and the older executive is "cooperate, think about other people first". His self-interest and survival instinct would make him the hero in a Hollywood zombie flick, George Clooney in that garbage "we took the title from World War Z but none of the good stuff" flick. Everyone who acts selfishly in this dies horribly, except our asshole who gets to learn a lesson about being a team player and a good father.

But the real moral of the film, as with Snowpiercer, Harry Potter and the Horrible Train (I don't remember which book; all of them really), Throw Momma from the Train, Under Siege 2 (double threat: You might get molested by Steven Seagal, AND killed by terrorists), Murder on the Orient Express, and more, is: Don't get on a train. Drive on the roads, go cross-country on bikes, get a boat, whatever you have to do, never get on a train because it'll always be full of bad guys, you can't get off, and there's only one way forward or back. Even if you lock them in a carriage, they get off when you do. Trains = death.

I'm perplexed at how the asshole's assistant is still alive and making calls like business as usual, only suffering a little moral crisis, when everywhere else is infected. We hear other people dying on phone and TV.

The "safe zone" plays off the Korean DMZ. The country ought to be pretty secure against zombie plague, Seoul and a few other open urban areas might be a total loss, but between Korean and US military (currently 23,468 troops) every smaller city should be able to fortress up pretty quick, and we don't see that in this. Early on, politicians are just calling it "riots", and that has kind of a bad connotation for not-so-distant Korean history where rioters get killed by cops & military.

Let's talk about the fast zombie thing. Romero based Night of the Living Dead on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (adapted badly into movies that totally miss the point four or more times), where the recently-turned "vampires" were slow, stupid, lost their old mind and took some time to get new ones. And so in the first NotLD, they're slow, fried-chicken-eating, implacable, but incapable of even prying up a plank; easy pickings for Texans to kill off. In Dawn of the Dead they started to repeat living behaviors, and sometimes had basic hunting tactics. In Day of the Dead, probably the best of the series, they're becoming smart hunters like Bud and the ones in the cave; simple barriers no longer work, only total isolation will save you. In Land of the Dead, the living have tried to cohabitate with zombies, keeping up a barrier wall around a city, foraging outside, while the increasingly smart zombies try to get in. To take back their world from the monsters called "Humans", finally achieving what Matheson was after in a short novel after 4 movies. Zombies are threatening in these, not because they're fast or powerful, but because they never stop, and while they're not smart yet, they're getting smarter.

Fast zombies throw that out for a cheap jump scare. Turning takes a few seconds instead of the minutes or hours it takes to die and rise for the Living Dead; which means you can't have any drama about someone bit and turning, no hope of a cure or cauterizing a wound or any desperate measure. Just bite, they're dead and join the mob. The best case in this film is about 2 minutes, and that's for a limb bite on a named character; if you have no name, or get it in the neck, you're gonna turn so fast.

Additionally, we see these zombies have very limited senses, they hunch up and stagger around like drunk frat boys, they're not coordinated… until the scene needs them to be, and then they can run, jump, climb over each other. In some scenes they're charging berserkers, strong enough to bust glass doors & windows, in others they're weak and flabby, pathetic things just asking to be let in. So I'm a little frustrated and disappointed by all of the director's choices there. It's still fine, adequate, but that's what keeps it from getting that coveted half-star or more above average from me.

There's an animated prequel, Seoul Station (apparently on 'zon Prime? Will look later), and a sequel movie, Peninsula, supposed to come out this year, but obviously the current zombie^W coronavirus outbreak might interfere with that. There's also a Hollywood remake, which you should burn before watching; if only there was a zombie outbreak killing everyone in Hollywood, the average quality of movies in the world would double.


Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying "System Reference Document"

4 months or more since announcement; for old Chaosium that would have been super fast, for "Moon Design sans Greg Stafford now doing business as the walking corpse of Chaosium" we don't know, they haven't shipped anything on a schedule before.

So, it's 23 pages, with 2 pages of license and an artless cover page. And no interior art except two colors of the conformance logo, which must be plastered on your book. The license isn't too different from the D20 SRD, except the massive list of "prohibited content".

The book is moderately useful mechanically, it's a quickstart version of BRP. They've eliminated characteristic/skill bonuses, and very few skills use characteristic bases. One of the nicer features of most D100 variants is either a skill category bonus from characteristics (say +1% to all Manipulation skills per CHA over 12), or direct characteristic base (Influence starts at CHAx2); in BRP SRD, Persuade starts at 15% whether you're a hideous slime beast or George Clooney.

There's a bunch of professions ranging from Cowboy to Warrior, with no theme or note about culture and era, none of which have magic. Equipment is mentioned, but there's no shopping lists for any period; very generic lists of weapons and armor ("Sword, Broad", "Pistol", "Pistol, Laser", etc; I thought I was terse!) are later given with no costs, and the armor uses the same craptastic fixed-defense mechanic as later-era Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest, rather than the die rolls that made Stormbringer, etc. combat dangerous.

BRP-SRD still has 4 almost totally disconnected task systems: Characteristic rolls, which are score x 5%, pass/fail; Skill Rolls with Critical, Special, Success, Fail, Fumble levels of success (Critical/Special used to be Impale/Critical? Or the other way around?); Skill vs Skill where levels of success are compared; and Resistance Rolls on a big table where characteristics are compared to get a % roll, which boils down to (Attack-Defense+10)x5%, pass/fail. Modern D100 games have simplified that down to just skill rolls and four levels of success, with specific resistance/characteristic test skills.

The classic skill-roll experience system is here, but it barely addresses over-100 skills, and has the classic "golf bag of weapons" flaw: No limit on how many skills can be improved, so everyone is encouraged to try every skill until they succeed once, then never do it again that session. Legend's Improvement Points mechanic somewhat fixes that, and certainly has much more serious over-100 skill rules, as well as paid training, time training, and improving characteristics. This is barely, minimally adequate to play a few sessions in, a campaign will be severely hamstrung.

Combat is minimalistic, with 2 pages of spot rules, heavily whitespace-padded. You don't technically need many rules to run D100 combat, you can make your own spot rules for most things. But there's no off-hand or dual-wield weapon use, for instance, and I like to fight Florentine or with a cloak in any medieval game. Everyone will have their own set of needs and the much longer section from most D100 games standardizes them.

There is no magic system at all, and they've forbidden use of any of the standard BRP systems of the last 45 years. OK, making a new magic system isn't that hard, but if you want it to be like Stormbringer, or Mythic Earth, or Magic World/Big Green Book BRP, you can't. You can't just pick this SRD up and have a usable game for any genre except mundane reality.

There's one animal stat block, and they've forbidden use of essentially any monster ever written because they forbid use of:

All trademarks, registered trademarks, proper names (characters, deities, place names, etc.), plots, story elements, locations, characters, artwork, or trade dress from any of the following: any releases from the product lines of Call of Cthulhu, Dragon Lords of Melniboné, ElfQuest, Elric!, Hawkmoon, HeroQuest, Hero Wars, King Arthur Pendragon, Magic World, Nephilim, Prince Valiant, Ringworld, RuneQuest, 7th Sea, Stormbringer, Superworld, Thieves’ World, Worlds of Wonder, and any related sublines; the world and mythology of Glorantha; all works related to the Cthulhu Mythos, including those that are otherwise public domain; and all works related to Le Morte d’Arthur.

Well, that leaves… subtract nothin' from nothin', uh, nothin'. You could publish a game of normal people, possibly medieval peasants to 19th C, who never encounter any monsters except a Bear. They can't go insane, because that's owned by Call of Cthulhu. They can't fight demons or elementals, because those are owned by Stormbringer. They can't be knights errant because that steps on Pendragon and Prince Valiant. I'm not actually sure "Humans" are allowed by this license. Possibly change them to Care Bears Koala Friends to be safe from "DBA Chaosium"'s vampiric lawyers.

★☆☆☆☆ Too little, a decade too late. Not worth the cover price of "free".

OpenCthulhu (see my comments ), Legend, OpenQuest, Mythras, Delta Green, and other D100-systems are much more open, and provide much more material to start working from.

What I'm Watching: Kingdom S2

After a brief flashback to the first use of the resurrection flower against the invading Japanese, S2 picks right back up with the zombies out in daylight, and a fantastic retreating battle, and heroic sacrifices winnowing the cast a bit.

There's more straightforward conflict this season, since we know who the villains are (anyone named Cho). A little of what they'd previously done fills in backstory, and desperate measures against the Japanese make sense, but not so much why they're still doing it; ambition, sure, but hitching yourself to the Queen's clan or using the plague as a weapon are not things sane people do.

A cop with an impressive feather hat tries to investigate the Queen, and gets further than I'd expect from feudal investigators, but politics makes that entire subplot pointless. She isn't especially cunning, her plots and tricks are very blunt and obvious, but nobody can call her on it, and her impossibly loyal guards and court ladies go along with it.

The Crown Prince does more swordfighting this season, though mostly it's hacking up zombies instead of duels. The "Tiger Hunter" peasant with a gun amuses me, and he finally gets one backstory flashback, but he's low on dialogue.

Nurse Seo-Bi in any other era would be a boss, with the most valuable medical/murder tool ever and the cure for the zombie plague, but in feudal Korea she's just pushed around as a pawn, and treats entirely the wrong person. Half the plot could be avoided if she just told the Crown Prince what she knows earlier, and doesn't help the villains.

By E3 & E4, I'm really missing the zombies; there's too much Human backstabbing and just chasing around the countryside which is zombie-free except at the surrounded fortress. And some of the death scenes last a very long time, many minutes of weeping and flashbacks.

Finally by E5, we get some zombie action again, but it's taken forever. Zombies vs guy in toilet is always a great set piece. The "camera following unseen action behind a wall" scenes get annoying quick; I prefer to see the combats.

"People aren't screaming. The screams have stopped."
"What's going on?"

The plan in E6 relies on zombies not being able to climb, which eventually they do, an ice lake breaking in a way that it doesn't (ice is bouyant, so breaking it in one place doesn't shatter the entire lake).

The "7 years later" setup for the next season is a little heavy on tell-not-showing, but we have a new villain teaser at least.

I did get bored mid-season. Zombies, ever since Night of the Living Dead, have existed to put pressure on people, and keep a plot advancing fast. Without the zombies, you just have people whining at each other, making too-elaborate plots, and they don't even have to stay in the house/castle. With zombies, you get desperation and quick, bad decisions in enclosed spaces.


Last Stand of the California Browncoats

Amusing that the start of the apocalypse is now in the past (the main books are set 20 years later), but I really want to point back at these, and in particular the prequel story, when people could have stayed home, avoided the plague, but instead wanted to go cosplay Firefly for a weekend.

Feed's a great epidemiology story, and a fairly good vlogging/social media (they say "blog" but only appear to do video) story, with zombies as almost a totally irrelevant side effect.

The main two caveats I have are technical: The blood testing system is basically what Theranos was pushing, and it probably can't be made to work, the sample sizes are too small. And later has a tiresomely impossible (at least with their tech) medical technology. There's a creepy personal thing, too, but you know, people gotta get their bone on with someone/thing.

I think I haven't read a bunch of the short stories, only the above and "How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea", which is a little silly because it's about Strines vs zombie kangaroos.

"Mira Grant" has a few other horror books, the Parasite series is very zombie-like as well; she's grim and serious but has just a little genre fanservice goofiness to lighten the mood. But the author under her real name, Seanan McGuire, also writes urban fantasy books, and they're dire. Easily some of the trashiest "I'm Wonder Woman and I wanna fuck a monster" books since Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake went off the rails straight into bondage-mutilation-porn-land.


If you think you have contracted the Vampire virus:

  1. Isolate yourself in a safe, dark place. Basement apartments, laundry rooms, service tunnels, and abandoned movie theatres are often ideal.
  2. By night, prepare a coffin or crate full of the dirt of your homeland.
  3. By day, sleep in your box.
  4. Make lists of enemies and annoyances. Each night, visit them and drain their blood.
  5. Make lists of friends and family who may join you. Each night, visit them and share the virus.
  6. Go to a sporting goods store and acquire legal firearms for self-defense against cross-wielding lunatics. Do not rely on magic powers.
  7. Even if you do not have the Vampire virus, this is a perfectly fine way to live.