September 18, 2018

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 Capsule Review Round-Up

As promised, here is my full list of capsule reviews for films seen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. They appear in rough order of preference, though there’s not much difference between movies listed within each category. A year from now I might remember them differently and rank them in a slightly different order. Weirdly attentive readers will note that I have reassigned ratings to a few items, mostly upwards.

I found last year’s TIFF surprisingly weak. 2018 came roaring back with an unusually strong roster—more masterpieces than usual, and fewer duds. Of the films I didn’t care for, I found nothing deserving of the dreaded Ire-Inspiring rating.

I’m not the only one writing a round-up article who found it a banner year. Buzzed about titles I didn’t catch include Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, which came out of nowhere to win the People’s Choice Award and launch itself into the Oscar race. Also garnering raves were A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk, Roma, Widows, and First Man, all of which are headed for release between now and the end of the year. So expect a tough time ordering your 2018 top ten lists.

A few of the titles below will also appear in that window. Others will make their way to theatrical release and then disc and/or streaming over the next year or so. These days even the obscurer items become available in some form or another. If your local library allows you to subscribe to the Kanopy streaming service, you’ll find that a rich source of past festival films that at one time would have played only that circuit before disappearing into obscurity.

The Pinnacle

ANIARA (Sweden, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja) When a luxury mass transport ship taking passengers to Mars from a ravaged Earth goes off course, a mediator of computer-assisted hallucinations struggles to keep hope alive. Surprising, multi-layered, emotionally resonant SF recalls Ballard and Kubrick while maintaining its own distinctive vision.

Shadow (China, Zhang Yimou) In defiance of his king, a commoner trained to pose as a secretly wounded general prepares for deadly and politically destabilizing duel. Stately court intrigue lays the groundwork for stunningly executed, outlandish action.

Shoplifters (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda) Family that supplements its scant income by stealing from stores takes in a preschooler without informing her abusive  parents. All the more heartbreaking for the perfect delicacy of its execution.

Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong) Aspiring writer obligated to return to his dad’s crummy farm loses his new girl to a mysterious rich dude (Steven Yeun.) Sublime and ambiguous suspense film that keeps the viewer questioning the nature of its central mystery. Yeun’s casual, collected menace makes him a bad guy for the ages.

High Life (France, Claire Denis) Death row inmates, including a monkish resister (Robert Pattinson) and a controlling scientist (Juliette Binoche) take a one-way spaceship journey beyond the solar system to send astronavigational and reproductive data back to Earth. Hypnotic and distressing, horrible and beautiful vision of hijacked fecundity.

Recommended

Vision (Japan, Naomi Kawase) Forester (Masatoshi Nagase) working a pristine mountainside receives a visit from a French writer (Juliette Binoche) searching for Vision, a herb that cures human pain. Gorgeous and deeply enigmatic exploration of the director’s key theme of mystical communion with nature.

The Crossing (China, Bai Xue) To earn money for a trip to Japan with her rich friend, a go-getting teen who commutes from the mainland to school in Hong Kong involves herself in contraband phone smuggling. Naturalistic drama with crime in it, elevated by the director’s buoyant lightness of touch and exquisite color sense.

Asako I & II (Japan, Ryusuke Hamaguchi) Reserved coffee shop clerk avoids telling her new boyfriend that he’s a dead ringer for her swoon-worthy first love, who up and vanished on her two and a half years ago. Truffautesque comedy-drama manages something even rarer than a successful tone shift—a subtle successful tone shift.

Border (Sweden, Ali Abbasi) Customs officer whose ability to smell fear and shame makes her a standout at her job feels a powerful attraction for a traveler whose Neanderthal-like features resemble her own. Beguiling weird tale framed, lit and edited in the style of a social realist drama.

Cities of Last Things (Taiwan, Ho Wi Ding) An ex-cop’s violent vengeance in a cyberpunk future is later explained by events occurring to his younger selves in our present and past.

Her Smell (US, Alex Ross Perry) Fading rocker (Elizabeth Moss) rides a wave of cocaine and megalomania to an epic flame-out. Rock ‘n’ roll drama amped up by stylized dialogue, roving handheld camera, strong performances from a great cast and a score that bubbles with unease. With Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Dan Stevens and Cara Delevingne.

Complicity (Japan, Kei Chikaura) Young Chinese man working illegally in Japan lies his way into a trainee chef post at a Soba restaurant. Understated drama of work and worth earns its emotions honestly.

Killing (Japan, Shinya Tsukamoto) Young ronin, recruited by an older samurai, discovers that his skill with a practice sword does not prepare him for the visceral horror of death-dealing. Tsukamoto reforges the samurai film into the pattern of his signature early works—an initiatory rite of extreme physical mortification.

The Quietude (Argentina, Pablo Trapero,4) When their father’s stroke reunited two strangely intimate sisters at the family ranch, dark secrets start to spill. Particularly steamy contribution to the venerable tradition of wrapping barbed political commentary in outré melodrama.

Edge of the Knife (Canada, Gwaai Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Brown) After a canoeing accident. a fisherman transforms into a gaagiixiid, or wildman. Mythic storytelling recreates the material culture and rhythms of traditional life in 19th century Haida Gwai. In the endangered Haida language.

Screwball (US, Billy Corben) Documentary uses an array of zingy devices, most notably reenactments with child actors playing its stable of miscreants, to recount the baseball doping scandal arising from a Miami clinic run by self-styled “unlicensed physician” Tony Bosch. Its satirical presentation of factual material is both formally innovative and entirely fitting to the High Florida subject matter.

Legend of the Demon Cat (China, Chen Kaige) A supernatural feline is killing its way through the Tang Dynasty royal court—and only a cashiered scribe and an exorcist monk can solve the mystery behind it. An extravagant, theatrical farrago of color and movement celebrates the realm of illusion—which is to say, the medium of film itself.

Non-Fiction (France, Olivier Assayas) Shop talk and debate about the digital future of the book industry act as the text for a publisher (Guillaume Canet), his wife (Juliette Binoche) a novelist (Vincent Macaigne), and their circle, with infidelity the subtext. Affectionate satire of the intelligentsia is formally conventional except for one factor—having its people talk about the things they would actually talk about.

Maya (France, Mia Hansen-Løve) Journalist freed from hostage ordeal in Syria heads to Goa to clear his head and develops a bond with the daughter of a family friend. Invisibly tight editing ensures that “languorous” is by not a code word for “boring”  in this experiential drama about healing and love.

The Realm (Spain, Rodrigo Sorogoyen) Bullheaded cabinet minister (Antonio de la Torre) maneuvers to save himself from fall guy status in a corruption scandal. Crackling political thriller driven by a propulsive score and a barnburner performance from de la Torre.

The Accused (Argentina, Gonzalo Tobal) Upper middle class family endures the pressure cooker of the college-age daughter’s media circus murder trial. Though the suspense revolves around the courtroom scenes, the family’s emotional world takes the main focus here.

The Wedding Guest (UK, Michael Winterbottom) Kidnapper-for-hire (Dev Patel) goes to Pakistan to abduct a young woman (Radhika Apte) on the eve of a forced marriage, so she can be reunited with her Anglo-Indian boyfriend. South Asian setting finds a fresh spin on the fugitive couple sub-genre, abetted by Winterbottom’s usual flair for atmospherics.

Diamantino (Portugal, Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt) Dim-witted soccer star who visualizes his victories as a cloud of giant fluffy puppies finds a new concern for refugees and becomes the cloning target of an ethnonationalist conspiracy. Carloto Cotta joins the all-time ranks of hunky idiots in this kooky satire.

Kingsway (Canada, Bruce Sweeney) Depressive semiotics prof whose mom and sister are wildly over-involved in his life spirals when he spots his wife’s motorbike parked outside the titular nookie motel. Sex farce of neurotic boundary trampling dispenses sharp dialogue at a near-Hawksian clip.

Helmet Heads (Chile/Costa Rica, Neto Villalobo) Motorbike courier must choose between the freedom and camaraderie of his job and his girlfriend’s request that he move with her to a crummy island. Wry proletarian comedy with a fun rock n roll soundtrack.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada, Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier & Edward Burtynsky) Documentary prowls the world depicting the massive scale of Homo sapiens’ alterations to the planetary environment. Titanic in its scope and paradoxical in the beauty of its hellishness—though the narration does not grapple with the way its visual language portrays humanity as a destructive invasive species in need of dramatic culling.

Ulysses & Mona (France, Sébastien Betbeder) Art student seeking challenge (Manal Issa) appoints herself assistant to a gruff retired artist (Eric Cantona) as he finds reason for an amends tour. Charming comedy-drama with flashes of Jarmuschian eccentricity.

Tel Aviv on Fire (Palestine/Israel, Sameh Zoabi) Suddenly elevated to writer status on the titular Palestinian soap opera, erstwhile production assistant enters into an uncredited collaboration with the Israeli commander of the Ramallah checkpoint. Uses the backstage comedy genre, with writing jokes galore, to address the Occupation with neither despair nor false idealism.

Florianópolis Dream (Argentina, Ana Katz) Separated couple, both psychologists, take a Brazilian vacation with their teenage son and daughter, falling into the beach bum community of the oddball dude who rents them a house. Low-key observational comedy of a family drifting apart.

Fig Tree (Ethiopia/Israel, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian) As conditions worsen in the 1989  civil war and soldiers start rounding up boys to fight, a hotheaded Ethiopian Jewish teen cares more about her boyfriend’s safety than her family’s impending emigration. Though the product of the Israeli film industry, this memoiristic drama hews in every aesthetic sense to the African cinema tradition.

aKasha (Sudan/Germany, hajooj kuka) With the rainy season over and the fighting season starting up again, local lothario Adnan drags his heels in rejoining the rebels fighting Sudan’s Islamic regime. Picaresque comedy suggests that low-intensity warfare is now woven into the fabric of village life.

The Factory (Russia, Yury Bykov) Aggrieved workers kidnap the local oligarch after he announced the shuttering of their deteriorating factory. Knows that the key to a hostage flick is to keep changing the status quo, so it never devolves into a static situation.

Good

Girls of the Sun (France, Eva Husson) Traumatized war correspondent (Emanuelle Bercot) covers an all-woman unit of Yazidi partisans as they fight alongside the Peshmerga to liberate a city held by their former ISIS captors. The standout set-piece of this ripped-from-the-headlines feminist war movie is the gripping extended flashback depicting the escape of the protagonist from her captors.

Heartbound (Denmark, Janus Metz & Sine Plambech, 3.5) Documentary follows 10 years in the lives of Thai women who marry men in a northern Danish fishing town. Starts by showing that these relationships are more nuanced than you might want to assume, before discovering that life will get you no matter where you go.

The Man Who Feels No Pain (India, Vasan Bala, 3.5) Dweeby boy with a condition that blocks his pain receptors grows up, learns martial arts, and vows to fight crime. Self-referential comedy action that bogs down in the middle with an unneeded, tone-breaking complication of its romantic subplot.

Emu Runner (Australia, Imogen Thomas, 3.5) 9 year old aboriginal girl copes with her mom’s death by skipping school to bond with a wild emu. Sweet-natured family drama created in collaboration with the community of Brewanna in rural New South Wales.

The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia (Cuba, Arturo Infante, 3.5) Kindly, long-suffering planetarium docent receives a special invitation from the aliens living secretly among the Cuban people to travel to their homeworld. Amiable, somewhat ramshackle comedy pokes fun at human foibles and  bureaucratic absurdity.

Okay

Woman at War (Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson) Choir leader who doubles as an eco warrior aims for one last attack against the power grid before heading to Ukraine to meet her new adopted daughter. Though not without charm, never quite locks into a comic style or point of view.

The Sweet Requiem (India, Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam) The arrival of an activist refugee in Delhi’s Tibetan community awakens traumatic memories of a beautician’s childhood border crossing. Flashbacks of the frigid mountain journey land with greater force than the present day plot line, which waits until the third act to activate its protagonist.

Mothers’ Instinct (Belgium, Olivier Masset-Depasse) After her best friend’s young son dies in an accident, a 50s housewife comes to suspect that the woman has sinister designs on her family. Otherwise assured Hitchcock homage winds up breaking the thriller contract in a way Hitch would never have signed off on.

Not Recommended

Hidden Man (China, Jiang Wen) Hamlet-like martial artist (Eddie Peng) returns to 30s Beijing to seek vengeance against the Chinese cop and Japanese officer who killed his family. Wastes Peng’s action talents on a plodding script padded with endless scenes in which the characters talk about what they might do, instead of doing things.

ENDZEIT - EVER AFTER (Germany, Carolina Hellsgård) Callous survivor and traumatized psych patient try to make it from Weimar to the only other city not destroyed in the zombie apocalypse. Somber mood piece with slow pacing and arbitrary plotting.

Museum (Mexico, Alonso Ruizpalacios) Hothead  veterinary student (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his easily buffaloed sidekick heist the most famous treasures of Mayan art from Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum. Tackles its recreation of a real life idiot plot by distancing itself from its protagonist, a choice that might have made sense in theory but falls flat in practice.

Jinpa (Tibet, Pema Tseden) Truck driver on the bleak high plateau of Tibet picks up a man with the same name, who is going to town to kill the man who murdered his father. Though this inexplicably won a best screenplay award at Venice, there’s only enough incident here for a short.

September 17, 2018

TIFF18: Disturbing Samurai Violence and Giant Fluffy Puppies

The festival is over for another year. Oh, how glorious to wake up without an alarm or the need to rush out the door to rush to the subway, hoof it to a venue and join a line-up. I’ll post my full round-up of all capsule reviews in order of preference tomorrow. But for now here are my reviews for the strong line-up of titles I saw on the eleventh and final day of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Helmet Heads (Chile/Costa Rica, Neto Villalobo, 4) Motorbike courier must choose between the freedom and camaraderie of his job and his girlfriend’s request that he move with her to a crummy island. Wry proletarian comedy with a fun rock n roll soundtrack.

Complicity (Japan, Kei Chikaura, 4) Young Chinese man working illegally in Japan lies his way into a trainee chef post at a Soba restaurant. Understated drama of work and worth earns its emotions honestly.

Diamantino (Portugal, Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt, 4) Dim-witted soccer star who visualizes his victories as a cloud of giant fluffy puppies finds a new concern for refugees and becomes the cloning target of an ethnonationalist conspiracy. Carloto Cotta joins the all-time ranks of hunky idiots in this kooky satire.

Killing (Japan, Shinya Tsukamoto, 4) Young ronin, recruited by an older samurai, discovers that his skill with a practice sword does not prepare him for the visceral horror of death-dealing. Tsukamoto reforges the samurai film into the pattern of his signature early works—an initiatory rite of extreme physical mortification.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 15, 2018

TIFF18: Larceny in the Family and Bollywood Meta-Action

Capsule reviews and notes from day ten of the Toronto International Film Festival.

It sure is easier to drag oneself across the finish line of the final few days when the fest is having a banner year.

Shoplifters (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda, 5) Family that supplements its scant income by stealing from stores takes in a preschooler withou informing her abusive  parents. All the more heartbreaking for the perfect delicacy of its execution.

Hidden Man (China, Jiang Wen, 2) Hamlet-like martial artist (Eddie Peng) returns to 30s Beijing to seek vengeance against the Chinese cop and Japanese officer who killed his family. Wastes Peng’s action talents on a plodding script padded with endless scenes in which the characters talk about what they might do, instead of doing things.

Emu Runner (Australia, Imogen Thomas, 3.5) 9 year old aboriginal girl copes with her mom’s death by skipping school to bond with a wild emu. Sweet-natured family drama created in collaboration with the community of Brewanna in rural New South Wales.

The Man Who Feels No Pain (India, Vasan Bala, 3.5) Dweeby boy with a condition that blocks his pain receptors grows up, learns martial arts, and vows to fight crime. Self-referential comedy action that bogs down in the middle with an unneeded, tone-breaking complication of its romantic subplot.

aKasha (Sudan/Germany, hajooj kuka, 3) With the rainy season over and the fighting season starting up again, local lothario Adnan drags his heels in rejoining the rebels fighting Sudan’s Islamic regime. Picaresque comedy suggests that low-intensity warfare is now woven into the fabric of village life.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

TIFF18: Beyond the Solar System with Claire Denis and Robert Pattinson

Capsule reviews and notes from day nine of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Screwball (US, Billy Corben, 4) Documentary uses an array of zingy devices, most notably reenactments with child actors playing its stable of miscreants, to recount the baseball doping scandal arising from a Miami clinic run by self-styled “unlicensed physician” Tony Bosch. Its satirical presentation of factual material is both formally innovative and entirely fitting to the High Florida subject matter.

As a non sports fan, I was until now unfamiliar with the full kookiness of A-Rod, marquee consumer of Bosch’s unauthorized pharmaceutical regimen.

ENDZEIT - EVER AFTER (Germany, Carolina Hellsgård, 2) Callous survivor and traumatized psych patient try to make it from Weimar to the only other city not destroyed in the zombie apocalypse. Somber mood piece with slow pacing and arbitrary plotting.

The Realm (Spain, Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 4) Bullheaded cabinet minister (Antonio de la Torre) maneuvers to save himself from fall guy status in a corruption scandal. Crackling political thriller driven by a propulsive score and a barnburner performance from de la Torre.

High Life (France, Claire Denis, 4.5) Death row inmates, including a monkish resister (Robert Pattinson) and a controlling scientist (Juliette Binoche) take a one-way spaceship journey beyond the solar system to send astronavigational and reproductive data back to Earth. Hypnotic and distressing, horrible and beautiful vision of hijacked fecundity.

Depending on how this settles in, might get an upgrade on my final list.

A24 picked this up for distribution after its first screenings at the fest.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 14, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: The Social Media Impact of Ulthar

In the latest episode of their prescient podcast, Ken and Robin talk GMing prophecies, heisted Chinese art, lampreys and magic circles that trap self-driving cars.

TIFF18: I Ain’t Superstitious, But a Demon Cat Just Crossed My Path

Capsule reviews and notes from day eight of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Maya (France, Mia Hansen-Løve, 4) Journalist freed from hostage ordeal in Syria heads to Goa to clear his head and develops a bond with the daughter of a family friend. Invisibly tight editing ensures that “languorous” is by not a code word for “boring”  in this experiential drama about healing and love.

Films about war correspondents tend to founder on the question of viewpoint—is the main character really a protagonist, or a witness to the stories of others? Maya removes that obstacle by focusing on the lead’s recovery from his work rather than the work itself.

Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong, 4) Aspiring writer obligated to return to his dad’s crummy farm loses his new girl to a mysterious rich dude (Steven Yeun.) Sublime and ambiguous suspense film that keeps the viewer questioning the nature of its central mystery. Yeun’s casual, collected menace makes him a bad guy for the ages. Based on a Haruki Murakami story.

As this settles over the next few days it just might get an upgrade.

Museum (Mexico, Alonso Ruizpalacios, 2) Hothead  veterinary student (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his easily buffaloed sidekick heist the most famous treasures of Mayan art from Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum. Tackles its recreation of a real life idiot plot by distancing itself from its protagonist, a choice that might have made sense in theory but falls flat in practice.

Legend of the Demon Cat (China, Chen Kaige, 4) A supernatural feline is killing its way through the Tang Dynasty royal court—and only a cashiered scribe and an exorcist monk can solve the mystery behind it. An extravagant, theatrical farrago of color and movement celebrates the realm of illusion—which is to say, the medium of film itself.

Billed as the director’s cut, implying that most viewers will get stuck with the producers’ cut.

Chen was present to introduce the screening. He said that the sets, fantastic evocations of the court of Chang’an, took six years to build. That includes time for 20,000 planted trees to grow to the desired size.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 13, 2018

TIFF18: A Supernatural Customs Agent and Frisky Publishers

Capsule reviews and notes from day seven of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Does it count as a Juliette Binoche double bill if there’s a night’s sleep in the middle? That and other metaphysical questions will be asked and probably not answered on TIFF hump day.

Non-Fiction (France, Olivier Assayas, 4) Shop talk and debate about the digital future of the book industry act as the text for a publisher (Guillaume Canet), his wife (Juliette Binoche) a novelist (Vincent Macaigne), and their circle, with infidelity the subtext. Affectionate satire of the intelligentsia is formally conventional except for one factor—having its people talk about the things they would actually talk about.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada, Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier & Edward Burtynsky, 4) Documentary prowls the world depicting the massive scale of Homo sapiens’ alterations to the planetary environment. Titanic in its scope and paradoxical in the beauty of its hellishness—though the narration does not grapple with the way its visual language portrays humanity as a destructive invasive species in need of dramatic culling.

Spoiler for next Avengers movie: the surviving Marvel heroes confront a triumphant Thanos. He ushers them into his plush screening room and shows them Anthropocene. The Avengers huddle. Finally Captain America strides over to Thanos and says, “Fair enough.”

Border (Sweden, Ali Abbasi, 4) Customs officer whose ability to smell fear and shame makes her a standout at her job feels a powerful attraction for a traveler whose Neanderthal-like features resemble her own. Beguiling weird tale framed, lit and edited in the style of a social realist drama.

Don’t find out much more than this before going to see it.

Asako I & II (Japan, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 4) Reserved coffee shop clerk avoids telling her new boyfriend that he’s a dead ringer for her swoon-worthy first love, who up and vanished on her two and a half years ago. Truffautesque comedy-drama manages something even rarer than a successful tone shift—a subtle successful tone shift.

Woman at War (Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson, 3) Choir leader who doubles as an eco warrior plans one last attack against the power grid before heading to Ukraine to meet her new adopted daughter. Though not without charm, this mix of whimsy and satire never quite locks into a comic style or point of view.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 12, 2018

TIFF18: Another Zhang Yimou Martial Arts Masterpiece, and More

Capsule reviews and notes from day six of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Her Smell (US, Alex Ross Perry, 4) Fading rocker (Elizabeth Moss) rides a wave of cocaine and megalomania to an epic flame-out. Rock ‘n’ roll drama amped up by stylized dialogue, roving handheld camera, strong performances from a great cast and a score that bubbles with unease. With Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Dan Stevens and Cara Delavigne.

Shadow (China, Zhang Yimou, 5) In defiance of his king, a commoner trained to pose as a secretly wounded general prepares for deadly and politically destabilizing duel. Stately court intrigue lays the groundwork for stunningly executed, outlandish action.

Shot in color, but with grayscale sets and costumes. Which is to say that eventually it becomes black and white and red all over.

Absolutely on a par with Zhang’s previous martial arts masterpieces Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Jinpa (Tibet, Pema Tseden, 2) Truck driver on the bleak high plateau of Tibet picks up a man with the same name, who is going to town to kill the man who murdered his father. Though this inexplicably won a best screenplay award at Venice, there’s only enough incident here for a short.

Vision (Japan, Naomi Kawase, 4) Forester (Masatoshi Nagase) working a pristine mountainside receives a visit from a French writer (Juliet Binoche) searching for Vision, a herb that cures human pain. Gorgeous and deeply enigmatic exploration of the director’s key theme of mystical communion with nature.

Usually when you think of deeply challenging films you call to mind something harsh or hard-hitting, but this is easily the calmest, loveliest mindfuck ever screened.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 11, 2018

TIFF18: A Haida Wildman and Families With Boundary Issues

Capsule reviews and notes from day five of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Edge of the Knife (Canada, Gwaai Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Brown, 4) After a canoeing accident. a fisherman transforms into a gaagiixiid, or wildman. Mythic storytelling recreates the material culture and rhythms of traditional life in 19th century Haida Gwai. In the endangered Haida language.

Unlike the wendigo, the gaagiixiid is a victim of spirit possession rather than a permanently monstrous devourer of human flesh.

In place of the usual production company logos, this starts with the crests of three Haida organizations, including a band council.

Kingsway (Canada, Bruce Sweeney, 4) Depressive semiotics prof whose mom and sister are wildly over-involved in his life spirals when he spots his wife’s motorbike parked outside the titular nookie motel. Sex farce of neurotic boundary trampling dispenses sharp dialogue at a near-Hawksian clip.

The Quietude (Argentina, Pablo Trapero,4) When their father’s stroke reunited two strangely intimate sisters at the family ranch, dark secrets start to spill. Particularly steamy contribution to the venerable tradition of wrapping barbed political commentary in outré melodrama.

Argentinian cinema is really on fire these days.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 10, 2018

#TIFF18: Borders and Boundaries

Capsule reviews and notes from day four of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Yesterday was mostly crime dramas. Today the whims of the programming gods decree a day about borders and the conflicts that spawn them. Not the film called Border, though—that’s coming later in the week.

The Sweet Requiem (India, Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam, 3) The arrival of an activist refugee in Delhi’s Tibetan community awakens traumatic memories of a beautician’s childhood border crossing. Flashbacks of the frigid mountain journey land with greater force than the present day plot line, which waits until the third act to activate its protagonist.

Tel Aviv on Fire (Palestine/Israel, Sameh Zoabi, 4) Suddenly elevated to writer status on the titular Palestinian soap opera, erstwhile production assistant enters into an uncredited collaboration with the Israeli commander of the Ramallah checkpoint. Uses the backstage comedy genre, with writing jokes galore, to address the Occupation with neither despair nor false idealism.

Fig Tree (Ethiopia/Israel, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian, 4) As conditions worsen in the 1989  civil war and soldiers start rounding up boys to fight, a hotheaded Ethiopian Jewish teen cares more about her boyfriend’s safety than her family’s impending emigration. Though the product of the Israeli film industry, this memoiristic drama hews in every aesthetic sense to the African cinema tradition.

The Crossing (China, Bai Xue, 4) To earn money for a trip to Japan with her rich friend, a go-getting teen who commutes from the mainland to school in Hong Kong involves herself in contraband phone smuggling. Naturalistic drama with crime in it, elevated by the director’s buoyant lightness of touch and exquisite color sense.

You can see the hand of some government minister somewhere in the end title card assuring the viewer that electronic surveillance has greatly reduced smuggling incidents at the border.

The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia (Cuba, Arturo Infante, 3.5) Kindly, long-suffering planetarium docent receives a special invitation from the aliens living secretly among the Cuban people to travel to their homeworld. Amiable, ramshackle comedy pokes fun at human foibles and  bureaucratic absurdity.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 09, 2018

TIFF18: Taiwanese Cyberpunk & A Triple-Header of Crime Sub-Genres

Capsule reviews and notes from day three of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Accused (Argentina, Gonzalo Tobal, 4) Upper middle class family endures the pressure cooker of the college-age daughter’s media circus murder trial. Though the suspense revolves around the courtroom scenes, the family’s emotional world takes the main focus here.

As the disclaimer card at the beginning doesn’t quite say, any similarity to the Amanda Knox case is strictly coincidental.

The Wedding Guest (UK, Michael Winterbottom, 4) Kidnapper-for-hire (Dev Patel) goes to Pakistan to abduct a young woman (Radhika Apte) on the eve of a forced marriage, so she can be reunited with her Anglo-Indian boyfriend. South Asian setting finds a fresh spin on the fugitive couple sub-genre, abetted by Winterbottom’s usual flair for atmospherics.

Heartbound (Denmark, Janus Metz & Sine Plambech, 3.5) Documentary follows 10 years in the lives of Thai women who marry men in a northern Danish fishing town. Starts by showing that these relationships are more nuanced than you might want to assume, before discovering that life will get you no matter where you go.

The Factory (Russia, Yury Bykov, 4) Aggrieved workers kidnap the local oligarch after he announced the shuttering of their deteriorating factory. Knows that the key to a hostage flick is to keep changing the status quo, so it never devolves into a static situation.

To describe this as a gritty Russian crime drama would imply that there is some other variety. I know you’re not here for that kind of nonsense.

Cities of Last Things (Taiwan, Ho Wi Ding, 4) An ex-cop’s violent vengeance in a cyberpunk future is later explained by events occurring to his younger selves In our present and past.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

September 07, 2018

TIFF18: Masterful Swedish SF and more

Capsule reviews and notes from day two of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Ulysses & Mona (France, Sébastien Betbeder, 4) Art student seeking challenge appoints herself assistant to a gruff retired artist (Eric Cantona) as he finds reason for an amends tour. Charming comedy-drama with flashes of Jarmuschian eccentricity.

Although mobile phones have ruined many movie plots, Skype has made scenes that would previously been shot as voice calls more connected and easier to shoot.

Mobile phones have also ruined many movie screenings but that’s a whole other area.

ANIARA (Sweden, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, 5) When a luxury mass transport ship taking passengers to Mars from a ravaged Earth goes off course, a mediator of computer-assisted hallucinations struggles to keep hope alive. Surprising, multi-layered, emotionally resonant SF recalls Ballard and Kubrick while maintaining its own distinctive vision.

Among the brilliant elements of this film is the obvious-in-retrospect idea that a passenger transport vehicle would look like a combination of a hotel and a modern airport, food court and all.

Mothers’ Instinct (Belgium, Olivier Masset-Depasse, 3) After her best friend’s young son dies in an accident, a 50s housewife comes to suspect that the woman has sinister designs on her family. Otherwise assured Hitchcock homage winds up breaking the thriller contract in a way Hitch would never have signed off on.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

#TIFF18: Vacation Gets Weird & Guerrilla Women vs. ISIS

Capsule reviews and notes from day one of the Toronto International Film Festival.

After a lackluster 2017, it’s time to hurl ourselves into a brand new TIFF.  This year promises more sure-thing directors and a resurgence of titles from Asia. Will the cinema gods smile or frown? Stay tuned for ten days of capsule reviews, followed by a round-up in order of preference when it has all unspooled.

Florianópolis Dream (Argentina, Ana Katz, 4) Separated couple, both psychologists, take a Brazilian vacation with their teenage son and daughter, falling into the beach bum community of the oddball dude who rents them a house. Low-key observational comedy of a family drifting apart.

Very subtly set in the long-ago time of cassette tapes, Nirvana T-shirts and cameras as a standalone item. Though this is by no means a plot-focused film, key events wouldn’t happen in the smartphone era.

Girls of the Sun (France, Eva Husson, 4) Traumatized war correspondent (Emanuelle Bercot) covers an all-woman unit of Yazidi partisans as they fight alongside the Peshmerga to liberate a city held by their former ISIS captors. The standout set-piece of this ripped-from-the-headlines feminist war movie is the gripping extended flashback depicting the escape of the protagonist from her captors.

Bercot’s character is clearly based on Marie Colvin, also the subject of an upcoming biopic starring Rosamund Pike.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, streaming platforms and DVD over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release.

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Snort the Pringles

In the latest episode of our deeply intuitive podcast, Ken and I talk incompetence in GUMSHOE, updating Nephilim, smart emotional writing, and Lincoln Park time travel.

August 31, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: A Stargate in His District

In the latest episode of their satisfyingly escalating podcast, Ken and Robin talk climactic sessions, Stoker translations, fantasy films 101, and Sumerian stargates.

August 27, 2018

Finding Me at FanExpo Canada 2018

This weekend the Toronto Convention Center will again be full to bursting with geek culture in all of its manifestations. Yes, it’s time for the massive multi-track behemoth of a show that is FanExpo Canada. Of its many tracks, the one that grows by bounds and also leaps every year is the gaming programming. Once again I’ll be talking tabletop roleplaying with the burgeoning, sometimes costumed throng.  I don’t do the booth thing at FanExpo but if you’d like to chat or get something signed, grab me at these locations before or after the panel.

Saturday 11 am ROOM 717A GUMSHOE AND MYSTERY ADVENTURES IN TABLETOP ROLE PLAYING GAMES

Saturday 3:00 pm ROOM 715B ROBIN LAWS SPOTLIGHT PANEL

Sunday 1:00 pm   ROOM 705 MASTER OF THE GAME: GAME MASTER MASTER CLASS

Sunday 3:00 pm   ROOM 717A GETTING STARTED IN TABLETOP ROLEPLAYING GAMES

August 24, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Nobody Wants to Be a Gate

In the latest episodeof our Elder-signed podcast, Ken and I talk narrative dungeons, Free Spacer w Christoph Sapinsky, tattooing Cthulhu and Rosaleen Norton.

August 17, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Gen Con 2018

In the latest episode of our scratchy-voiced podcast, Ken and I review the hustle, bustle & lobsters of Gen Con 2018 and talk to Emily Reinhart.

July 27, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: It’s Not Owls, It’s Charlemagne

In the latest episode of our chronologically correct podcast, Ken and I talk Innmsouthing your scenario ending, Cagots, gaming David Lynch, and the Phantom Time Hypothesis.

July 26, 2018

Finding Me at Gen Con 2018


It feels like Gen Con comes around faster every year and this year [squints at calendar] it’s literally true!
As always I’m looking forward to chatting, signing, and seminaring. You can find me at the following public events.
Thursday, Aug 2, 4:00-5:00 p.m.: One GM, One Player MasterClass [Lucas Oil : Mtg Rm 5]
Friday August 3rd, 1:00-2:00 p.m.: Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff LIVE! [Lucas Oil : Mtg Rm 5] As usual, this has sold out, so bring your event tickets.
Friday August 3rd, 4:00-5:00 p.m.: Investigative Roleplaying MasterClass [Lucas Oil : Mtg Rm 5]
Saturday August 4: 2:00-3:00 p.m.: Swords, Spies & Shoggoths: The Pelgrane Press Panel [Lucas Oil : Mtg Rm 5]
Saturday August 4: 4:00-5:00 p.m.: Dramatic Interaction MasterClass [Lucas Oil : Mtg Rm 5]
I will also be making a special guest appearance at another panel to announce an exciting new project, but you’re going to have to guess on that one.
Otherwise, when I’m not in transit or scarfing down one of the convention center's fine calorie-bearing sustenance products, you’ll find me at the Pelgrane Press booth, #1317. As they say because it rhymes: don’t be shy, please say hi!





July 20, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Jack the Riffer

In the latest episode of their highly secure podcast, Ken and Robin talk same foe/different games, China's Sea Dragon data heist, protagonists, and Witold Pilecki.

July 06, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: LIGHTNING RO-O-O-O-O-O-OUND!!!

Rapid fire Qs include arm-wrestling, aftershave and the game we'd bargain our lives for in post-zombie hell as Ken and Robin Talks About Stuff reaches its landmark 300th ep. LIGHTNING RO-O-O-O-O-O-OUND!!!

June 29, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Mostly Claw Dudes

In the latest episode of our self-referemtial podcast, Ken and Robin talk adapting creatures between systems, Rich Ranallo, behind the podcast scenes, and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

June 22, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Now We're Just Gygaxing

In the latest episode of our fast-galloping podcast, Ken and I talk design lessons of Yellow King & Vampire, jinn, Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind and the Discoverie of Witchcraft.

June 21, 2018

Mapping Story Beats With Penguins

My new book Beating the Story: How to Map, Understand and Elevate Any Narrative examines the building blocks of storytelling, with a particular emphasis on emotional rhythm. Masterful narratives hold our attention by regularly but unpredictably oscillating our response to events between up notes, in which we are moved toward hope, and down notes, in which we fear a disastrous or negative outcome. The beat analysis system, first seen in Hamlet’s Hit Points and expanded in Beating the Story to address the needs of fiction writers in general, allows you to break down and enhance the moment-by-moment flow of any piece. As your needs dictate, this can assist you when you outline or rewrite your own work, or when you comment on or analyze someone else’s story.

The sample narratives mapped in the book, including classic episodes of “Mad Men” and “The X-Files,” come from the world of fiction.

However, non-fictional storytelling works the same way. Everything from TV news reports to books of history, memoir, and journalism likewise hold our attention with a varying emotional rhythm. Documentary films and television do the same.

No more gripping manipulation of emotional rhythm can be found in the non-fiction realm than in the various BBC nature documentaries featuring the compelling vocal quaver of revered naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

An particularly acute example occurs as the final set piece in episode I of “Planet Earth II.” You can find the show on Netflix in many territories. If you’d like to follow along, this sequence starts at the 41:40 mark.

With the help of the free Beating the Story beat mapping tool, let’s break down the sequence.

All but one of the beats we’re about to look at are procedural, in which our viewpoint characters tackle practical, external obstacles. The penguins we are encouraged to identify with face such practical challenges as hunger, crashing waves, and predators.

1) The sequence begins with an intro shot of Zavovdovski Island. The shot’s framing, coupled with the score, emphasize how majestic and impressive this remote location is. Though the sequence hasn’t yet posed a question to orient us in hope or fear, the glorious 4k scenic grandeur nonetheless registers as an up note.

2) But then Attenborough informs us that it’s surrounded by the stormiest of seas and is an active volcano. We’ve seen enough of this nature series already to know that whatever lives here is going to face a struggle for survival. We don’t know what creature we’re worried about, but we have cause to worry. That gives us a down note.

3) With an upturn in the Attenboroughian voice, we see that we’re following the exploits of chinstrap penguins. Who doesn’t love adorable, physically expressive penguins? An up note.

4) We’re told that they have plenty of food. An up note.

5) But to exploit it penguins have to risk their lives. A down note.

6) We watch the plucky penguins get knocked around by the high waves that lash their island’s rocky shore. A second down note.

7) But they seem kind of adept and skillful as they dive off the rocks, although the narration tells us that “life here is dangerous and extreme.” This ambiguous beat plays both ways, with both up and down elements.

8) Cut to: a bucolic shot of the colony. There are benefits, we learn, to living on a volcano. An up note.

9) The lava’s warmth melts snow, we are told. That sounds encouraging—an up note.

10) The warmth brings life. The island is covered in chicks. An up note.

11) We witness a scene of parental care, a moment sure to tweak our sympathy and anthropomorphizing impulses. This up note intensifies our identification with the penguins.

12) But the two chicks we’re focusing on are hungry and waiting for father to return with next meal. This introduces the prospect of fear—what if he doesn’t come back? A down note. The implicit question in any Planet Earth scene is “will this animal we’re being shown survive?” This beat sharpens the sequence’s central question to the more specific “will the father return to feed the chicks?”

13) Cut to the sea: some of the fathers are being eaten by predatory birds called skewers! Bloody penguin flesh in gull-like beaks can only mean a down note.

14) The skewers also harass the colony, flying over it in search of vulnerable chicks. Another down note. The earlier sequence of three consecutive up beats has now been canceled out by as many down beats.

15) As if our avuncular naturalist senses the fear he’s instilled in us, and knows we need an up beat, Attenborough assures us that everything will be fine—

16) —if father comes back soon. Hey, the narrator got our hopes up only to wrench them down again!

17) A shot of the empty sea, accompanied by sad music, delivers another down note.

18) The father penguin surges through water in heroic slow motion, coming to the chicks. An up note.

19) In this narration, the conjunction “but” often signals a turn toward fear. But, we are told, the worst of the journey is still to come.

20) In another fearful moment, a mass of struggling penguins tries to get back up rocks as crashing waves pull them back down.

21) The poor penguins clamber over each other. Another down note.

22) But our hero penguin, the one we’ve been primed to particularly care about, uses his tiny claws to overcome. An up note.

23) He’s up and hopping onto the land. Another up note.

24) But we see another penguin dad covered in blood, and feel his pain. A down note.

25) Our hero has 3 km to go and is loaded down with food. As we see the enormity of his task, we fear for him—another down note.

26) Oh no, we see, this, the largest penguin colony, is dauntingly huge in scope. A down note.

27) But he does this every other day, we are told. Here the “but” again signals a reversal in emotion, but this time reversed, from a previous down note to this up beat.

28) He has trouble finding his nest. A down note.

29) The mother waits, her chicks desperate. A down note.

30) The father recognizes the mother’s cry—salvation is at hand, and we get an up note.

31) He scares off a skewer, for a particularly triumphant up note. (Belay that cynicism. This can’t possibly be a shot of some other random penguin we don’t care about putting the boots to that skewer. Nature documentaries would never play games with us like that. We can totally tell our chinstrap penguin from all the countless others.)

32) At last, mother and father greet each other, for the up note that accompanies any reunion of the central couple.

33) He feeds the chicks. The question “will the father penguin feed his chicks” is answered in the affirmative, for a resounding up note.

34) The couple exchanges a head bob of acknowledgment. Here, in a nature documentary, we get a dramatic beat, in which one character (the petitioner) seeks an emotional response from another (the granter.) The father receives this affirmation from the mother, making this emotional exchange an up note.

35) Now it’s mother’s turn to go get food, so off she goes. We worry for her but are encouraged by Attenborough’s delivery to accept this as a necessary fact of chinstrap penguin existence. You might score it as an up beat, but I’m gonna call it a crossed beat, because I just saw what Dad had to go through.

36) These majestic penguins have it all, the voice-over indicates, as the piece begins its wrap up.

37) This segues into a general paean to islands, concluding the episode on a final up note.

In a ten minute span, that’s thirty-seven beats of intense anthropomorphic emotion, as finely calibrated as any suspense sequence in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Narratives, with the ups and downs that keep us riveted, are all around us.

Learn to decode this basic dynamic with Beating the Story: How to Map, Understand and Elevate Any Narrative, from Gameplaywright.

Available at Amazon, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, and in all digital formats at DriveThru RPG,. Or ask your friendly hobby games store to order it through Atlas Games.

June 15, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Walrus Revenge

In the latest episode of our odobenus-fearing podcast, Ken and I talk choice & the gamer brain, ZTE, walrus revenge, and the Eliptonic 70s.

June 08, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Build a Crummy Robot and Call It Gnostic

In the latest episode of their safely engineered podcast, Ken and Robin talk coincidence in mysteries, Gnosticism 101, genre tropes in litfic and reversing Chernobyl.

June 01, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: That's Why They Call It Ichor

In the latest episode of our extremely deep podcast, Ken and I talk cursed supermarket tokens, the Chicago Spire Pit, samurai films, and sacred alphabets.

May 25, 2018

May 18, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Kill America's Famous Pigs

In the latest episode of our XP-grubbing podcast, Ken and I talk in-game reward, how Ken picks games, persuasive maps and Hobby Lobby's Sumerian incantations.

May 11, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Double Skeleton Town

In the latest episode of our lightly resined podcast, Ken and I talk CIA boardgames, game fiction, fantasy world wine and the Roanoke colony.

May 04, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Where Magic Goes to Die

In the latest episode of our expose-filled podcast, Ken and I talk Counterspy, con man films, Alex Roberts and the geomancy of the L.A. Times.

April 27, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Leaves Don't Work On PayPal

In the latest episode of our well-secured podcast, Ken and I talk mystery-ready monsters, US Army uniforms, writing underrepresented groups, and a Newtonian book heist.

April 20, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: CHRONOCA$H

In the latest episode of our precisely planned podcast, Ken and I talk un-unnatural mysteries, the Skripal attack, heist flicks and William Duer.

April 13, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Grift the Pope

In the latest episode of our relic-festooned podcast, Ken and I talk gaming Annihilation, spy fiction inspirations for Fall of DELTA GREEN, subtle horror moments and a pope-grifting cleric.

April 06, 2018

March 30, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Guy Across the Stupid Mountain

In the latest episode of our steam-releasing podcast, Ken and I talk MKULTRA in Fall of DELTA GREEN, more Instant Pot, doppelgangers and historical Arthur theories.

March 23, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: 2) Get In Too Deep

In the latest episode of our meddling podcast, Ken and I talk escaping captivity, operational slush funds, gaming Scooby-Doo and native American statehood.

March 16, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: There's Always a Worse Writer Death

In the latest episode of our option-filled podcast, Ken and I talk The Fall of DELTA GREEN, shaping dramatic scenes, choice & game design, and Savitri Devi.

March 12, 2018

Catch Me at Breakout This Weekend

Toronto’s Breakout tabletop game convention levels up once again this year, expanding to the commodious downtown confines of the Sheraton Center. Along with a packed roster of board game and RPG events to play in, Breakout has rounded up a deep bench of guests from the area and beyond. Breakout happens this coming weekend, March 16-18.

I’ll be taking part in the following panels:

Saturday 4 pm - 5 pm GM Masterclass

Sunday 3 pm - 4 pm Creating Compelling Adventures

Corral me either before or after either event to say hi or get something signed.

March 09, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: It's Just a Tumor Tree

In the latest episode of our bear-greased podcast, Ken and I talk skeptical PCs in horror, the Boy Jones, the Witches Tree and Springheeled Jack.

March 02, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Haunted Anarchist Texts

In the latest episode of our tinsel-spattered podcast, Ken and Robin talk fights that advance the story, 2017 movie top tens and the Ritman online occult library.

February 23, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: In Service of the Yeast God

In the latest episode of our trim and healthy podcast, Ken and I talk improv GUMSHOE, fitness app opsec, scene transitions and the Agatha Christie disappearance.

February 16, 2018

February 09, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Logical Analogy Shock

In the latest episode of their comfy cuppa of podcast, Ken and Robin talk RPGs as jazz, Dennis Detwiller, the Worst Genre, and zodiac cup tea reading.

February 05, 2018

Beating the Story: Narrative Mapping in Practice

Beating the Story is my new book of practical storytelling techniques, now on pre-order from its publisher, Gameplaywright. It provides a system allowing you to, as its subtitle says, map, understand, and elevate any narrative. This approach breaks moments down into key types, the most important being dramatic beats of personal interaction and procedural beats in which characters overcome external obstacles. It lets you mark the flow of information with other beat types: pipe, question, and reveal. The system also encourages you to note the presence of oddball flourish beats, like strong spices, register most satisfyingly when used sparingly: commentary, bringdown, gratification, and anticipation.
(You may be familiar with these concepts from Hamlet’s Hit Points, which gears itself to the needs of roleplaying GMs and designers.)
Thanks to convenient timing, I happen to be working on a novel that I developed using the system shown in Beating the Story just as we are making the book available for pre-orders. This gives me the chance to discuss the translation of its tools and principles to an actual writing process.

The novel, called The Missing and the Lost, is part of the initial release of books for Pelgrane Press’ The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. We crowdfunded the project through a Kickstarter last summer and remain on track for our December 2018 release date. The novel features a character who first appeared in a short story in my original fiction collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign.
The first draft isn’t done yet, so it’s way too early to be giving away anything that might be construed as a spoiler. For both the examples given here and the above sample illustration, I’m either changing details or talking about them vaguely.
I’m now two-thirds of the way through the initial draft, give or take. At present the story map, as created on storybeats.io, consists of 159 beats. Twelve of them appear in the illustration here.
It also allows you to test the power and appropriateness of your shifts between scenes with transition icons, each with its own impact on pacing.
For this project I’ve been using the beat map as my only outline. This choice has given me the structure required for a genre novel in which several parallel threads eventually converge, and the flexibility to easily improve the interweaving while I write.
The graphic presentation, abetted by the ease of moving elements around with the storybeats.io tool, has enabled me to keep the various threads of the multi-threaded storyline active over the course of the narrative.
The map excerpt here shows the novel’s opening. The icons tell me that I’m hitting my desired mix of emotional and problem-solving moments.
This first-person novel follows a single viewpoint character throughout. The domino effect of scenes tumbling out of one another has yet to kick in, so the smaller transition icons you see are all Continuations—shifts featuring the same character but not in an Scene A causes Scene B sort of way. Later on Outgrowth transitions come to dominate.
During the draft process I’ve been revising the beat map continually. The writing of a scene may suggest more moments that rise toward hope or drop toward fear and ought to be included on the updated map. As characters flesh out on the page and become richer, I’ve discovered the need for additional dramatic moments in which they address obvious conflicts arising from my execution of particular sequences.
In a couple of instances I’ve spotted ways to stoke momentum by making previously disconnected scenes flow directly into one another, as marked by Continuation transitions.
In one instance the beat map allowed me to spot an opportunity to excitingly connect two previously disparate scenes by having a character in scene A provide a reason for the protagonist to initiate scene B with another supporting character.
Checking the overall narrative line with the web app, I can see that it fits the pattern of most satisfying narratives—a modulated but gradually downward line.
Overall the beat map process encourages you to think about key moments, their purpose in the story, the impact you intend them to have, and how they can best be threaded together.
Preorder Beating the Story today, get it in electronic form immediately, check it out, and then head over to storybeats.io to turn practical theory into creative action.
















February 02, 2018

January 26, 2018

January 19, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Retinue of Clowns and Goofs

In the latest episode of their delectable podcast, Ken and Robin talk Shakespearean gaming, flavor combos, Ruth Tillman, and Ken's Strand Books raid.

January 12, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Convenient Anti-Harpy Shield

In the latest episode of our steady-handed podcast, Ken and I talk scenario process, Hellenistic 13th Age, classic Hollywood character actors and Grover Cleveland's secret nautical surgery.

January 05, 2018

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: What Would Thagdar Do?

In the first 2018 episode of our immaculately planned podcast, Ken and I talk emotionally engaging RPGs, military operation names, the American anti-hero, and eclipse child conception.