Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: "Of Dice and Men"

"Of Dice and Men" will play at Gen Con Indy on Friday, Aug. 15 and Sunday, Aug. 17. Click here for more details.

For anyone who's ever fawned over an especially lucky 20-sided die like Gollum fondling his Precious, or spent countless hours hand-painting tiny metal figurines to use with Dungeons & Dragons or similar role-playing games, the new feature film "Of Dice and Men" offers a funny but also surprisingly heartfelt look at those who game, and why.

(For instance, if you're not a gamer you might not know that "die" is the singular of "dice" -- which gamers use frequently in varying shapes -- and not the verb for becoming deceased -- something gamers also do prodigiously.)

Based on a stage play by Cameron McNary, who also stars and co-wrote the screenplay with Francis Abbey, "Dice" looks at a group of young-ish friends who all play D&D together. They're getting older, some are married with kids and others are on the brink of moving on with their lives. They've got just a few sessions left of gaming together to make some memories -- assuming they don't kill each other first.

Directed by Kelley Slagle, this is super-low-budget filmmaking that makes up for its lack of production values with some snappy dialogue, invested performances and cackling-good in-jokes about the geek passion of role-playing games. The cast and crew approach the material not as too-hip outsiders looking to score some cheap jokes on nerds, but as folks who have sat on both sides of a gamemaster's screen, and have the graph-paper maps to prove it.

This is a movie by gamers, for gamers.

It has been 25 years (!) since I last sat down at a table for role-play gaming, though I still RPG a little on the computer and paint lead figurines when I have the time. So I know this world, and appreciate how well and lovingly "Dice" reflects it.

For those who don't know role-play games, each player takes on the part of one or more characters and tries to reflect their personalities and abilities in-game as they strive to overcome challenges. One person usually serves as the game-master or dungeon-master, acting as the storyteller, judge and coach.

"It's like rules for playing pretend," is how one kid aptly describes RPG.

Evan Casey plays John Francis, the longtime GM and well-meaning protagonist. His best friend is John Alex (McNary) -- they've been buds since grade school and share the same first and last names; thus the middle monikers to distinguish them.

John Alex is a wiseacre and cynic, the sort who reflexively rubs most people the wrong way, but endears himself to his friends. Somewhere along the way they picked up Jason (Ricardo Frederick Evans), a jock type with a knight-errant's moral code for smiting evil and defending the weak.

Given those descriptions, it's probably not surprising that John Alex plays a back-stabbing rogue ("Spango Garnetkiller, 17th of that name") and Jason is holy-warrior paladin.

Gwen Gastorf plays Tara, who is frustrated inside the game about her character's penchant for gruesome death, and her  unrequited affection for John Francis outside of it. She's one of those people who tends to come up with overly elaborate backstories for her character; in this case she's a "half-elven double princess wizard."
Tara: "Why do I keep dying?"
John Francis: "You're the party's wizard; it's kind of your job."
Tara: "No, it is my job to be smarter and prettier than everyone else, and to make things blow up real good."
Rebecca A. Herron has a delicious role as Linda, who has strong maternal instincts but likes playing a male dwarf who brags constantly about the size of his member. Greg Thompson has a soulful turn as her husband Brandon, who doesn't really care a whit for D&D but likes spending quality time with his beloved.

It's a lot of fun-and-games at first -- quite literally -- but things grow tense when one member of the group reveals some critically important life-changing plans, and another secretly contemplates something with equal ramifications, if an entirely different path.

Some of the best sequences take place in-game, where the actors dress up as their character's characters, trade quips and vie with (largely unseen) beasties.

I'm constantly complaining about most movies nowadays being too long, but at 75 minutes "Of Dice and Men" is one of the few I wished would've lingered a little longer. I liked spending time with these people, and wanted a little more.

If you're seriously into RPG or are just die-curious, this is an enjoyable insider's look at the hobby, tongue in cheek and heart on sleeve. Game on.

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