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In Memoriam

Robert Munroe (Ensign, Lexington militia, KIA 19 April 1775, Lexington Green)
Bryan Cooper Mount (SGT, Troop B, 1st Sqdn, 73rd Cavalry Regt, 2nd Infantry Bde CT, US Army, KIA 21 Jul 2020, eastern Syria)

And all 559,315 in between.
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[RECIPE] The Luck of Morocco

I first made this (or its precursor) about a decade ago during the year that, inspired to frenzy by Paula Wolfert's superb Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, I taught myself a whole bunch of Moroccan recipes. (I was also inspired by eating Moroccan merguez sausage in San Francisco and buying a jar of preserved lemons which, it turns out, you should not try to take through the airport scanner in 2010 or any other year.) This seven-vegetable tagine varies place by place in Morocco; my specific version here borrows from Fez and from Casablanca, as far as I can figure.

Seven is lucky, so seven vegetables makes a luck-bringing dish. For extra luck, you make it with seven spices. (Note: For this specific luck, I'm not counting the turmeric in the couscous as a spice in the tagine, and I'm not counting the chickpeas as vegetables. But feel free to honor Moroccan Arioch with 8-vegetable, 8-spice tagine if you wish.) Although I call it a tagine, I make this recipe in a deep saucepan not an actual tagine (in fact, I don't bother covering the saucepan is how un-tagine it is). Also, to complete my litany of shame, I just use the instant couscous for the same reason I don't make my own pasta. Sloth. Sloth is the reason.

7-VEGETABLE, 7-SPICE "TAGINE" OVER COUSCOUS

FOR THE TAGINE

2 TB olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 CUP white or green cabbage, shredded
2 medium carrots, peeled & chopped
Salt to taste

1 TB tomato paste

1 big pinch saffron, bloomed in hot water
2 tsp ginger, minced
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 medium turnip, peeled & diced
1/2 CUP golden raisins
~1 LB butternut squash, peeled & diced
~2 cups of chicken stock (or substitute vegetable stock if you want)
1 medium zucchini, halved and sliced thin
1 (15-oz.) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes

1/3 CUP parsley, chopped

FOR THE COUSCOUS

1.5 CUPS instant couscous (not pearled/Israeli couscous)
1.25 CUPS water
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp olive oil
2 TB butter
1 tsp turmeric

Chop the vegetables fairly small, because you want them to cook through fairly rapidly, but not so small that they get mushy.

Heat oil in a large deep saucepan over medium until shimmery, then saute the onions until slightly softened (4 MINS). Add the cabbage and carrots, and a dash of salt, and saute for another 6 MINS. Clear out a little space in the bottom of the pan and add the tomato paste; let it cook unmolested (deep umami building here) for 1-2 MINS then stir it into the onions along with the seven spices. Cook the spices for 2 MINS.

Add the turnip, raisins, and squash along with another dash of salt and about a cup of the stock; simmer for 10 MINS. Add more stock as needed to keep the texture stew-like without ever becoming soupy. Add the zucchini, chickpeas,and tomatoes; simmer for 5-10 MINS, tasting the squash for doneness.

While the vegetables simmer away, make the couscous. Set the water to boil in a small pot with a lid, adding salt and oil. Remove boiling water from heat, mix in the couscous, and cover the pot. Let the couscous sit and absorb the water for ~5 MINS. Then return to low heat and, using a fork, stir in the butter and turmeric.

Stir the parsley into the vegetables, and do a final taste for salt. You might want to add a little (1/2 TB or less) red wine vinegar if you don't feel the flavors are bright enough.

Dish up couscous in a mound with a "well" in the middle and ladle on the vegetables. Revel in your double luck!

NOTE ON VEGETABLES

You can swap out the vegetables with fair abandon -- the original recipes usually call for pumpkin instead of butternut squash, but then you have a LOT of leftover pumpkin so you'd better have a killer kaddu bourani recipe handy. Or you could use acorn squash, spaghetti squash, or any other similar gourd if you prefer. I like the sweetness of butternut squash in this dish, and between it and the raisins I don't need to add sugar (which some recipes do). Other swap-outs that I've seen include fennel, sweet potatoes, fava beans (instead of chickpeas), and so on.
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My ChupacabraCon Schedule

If any of you good people have any good virtual conventioneering left in you, I have a good one for you to tune into -- ChupacabraCon VII, normally in Austin, this weekend on Discord! So click one, click all!

FRIDAY, APRIL 30
11:00 a.m.-12:20 p.m.
Morning Coffee and Cthulhu
Join horror gaming king Ken Hite, his partner in crime Mark Carroll, and the amazing James Lowder to discuss the latest and greatest in horror gaming!
[Kenneth Hite, Mark Carroll, James Lowder]

SATURDAY, MAY 1
2:00 p.m.-3:20 p.m.
EBG Presents: Becoming the GM Your Players Wish You Were
You've prepared a brilliant storyline and evocative material. How do you keep your players engaged and exploring the quest you prepared for? Avoiding pitfalls, designing interesting content, and letting go when the story gets out of control. Worldbuilding, adventure design, backgrounds, has it all been done before? How do you spin old stories to new heights?
[Aaron de Orive, Bill Keyes, Kenneth Hite, Michael Surbrook, Scott Crosson]

4:00 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
Post-Apocalypse Texas: Gaming Your Lone Star Road Warrior
Our authors crack open Vault 36 on Shadowrun, The Morrow Project, the Day After Ragnarok, the Texas-Israeli War, Car Wars and other post-apocalyptic visions of Texas. Tune in for tips on how to have fun ruining your hometown!
[Jeb Boyt, Jess Nevins, Kenneth Hite, Mark Finn, Russell Zimmerman]

SUNDAY, MAY 2
2:00 p.m.-3:20 p.m.
Horror At The Table
Horror is one of the most difficult genres to successfully roleplay. How can you create a genuine sense of terror at the table? We'll look at this question from multiple perspectives - game master, player, and designer.
[Aaron de Orive, Darren Watts, James Lowder, Jeb Boyt, Kenneth Hite]
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CIFF Meets the Phantom of the Park

So the Chicago International Film Festival went off, by which I mean it went on but off the big screen and in my living room. CIFF set up a surprisingly smooth and almost flawless system by which I could download a CIFF app on my Roku and dial up the films I bought at my leisure. (The only flaw was the failure to say in the ticket email which films had a restricted viewing window, leading to a hasty postponement of my Wednesday game to catch the second window.) Some of the films I would have seen played only in drive-in screenings; I skipped the one (1) South Korean film this year as it looked like a slow but brittle comedy, which is not what I go to South Korea for, even in my living room. I'll catch the Spike Lee David Byrne concert pic (which was only at the drive-in, such a weird choice) on HBOMax next week, most likely. That left me with ten feature films, about half my normal CIFF allotment. mollpeartree and I also watched two blocks of shorts; the generally excellent Comedy block had a delightful Guy Maddin short ("Stump the Guesser!") in it, and the generally mediocre Horror block had one grand French final-girl short, "La Biche."

So here then are the lucky CIFF 2020 ten, in convenient Ken and Robin Consume Media format:

THE PINNACLE

Careless Crime (Iran, Shahram Mokri, 2020) Pill addict Faraj (Mohammad Sareban) gets drawn into a plot to burn down a movie theater which eerily recalls the Cinema Rex fire in 1978. Mokri lays down long, overlapping takes and arcs, slowly arcing tighter and tighter on multiple levels (including a film-within-a-film-within-a-film, at one point) around the inescapable haunting of Iran’s cinema past. A superb achievement on so many levels; the lighting and Ehsan Sedigh’s discordant score stand-outs among them. I desperately need to see it again in the kind of real theater space that Mokri turns into a fractal nexus.

RECOMMENDED

Night of the Kings (Côte d’Ivoire/Canada/France/Senegal, Phillippe Lacôte, 2020) The newest inmate (Koné Bakary) in the “jungle” of the MACA prison gets tapped by its dying king to tell a story on the night of the red moon. Prison-gangster drama meets Arabian-night medievalism both narratively and visually in a rich and surprising film of narratology and survival.

Sleep (Germany, Michael Venus, 2020) Nightmare-plagued Marlene (Sandra Huller) collapses in a mountain resort hotel — the one in her dreams — and her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) investigates. A strong, dogged performance by Kohlhof anchors this excellent psychological ghost thriller, which gets nearly everything right from a creepy empty hotel set to vibrantly strange supporting actors.

Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (US, Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer, 2020) Herzog follows enthusiastic geologist Oppenheimer on a tour of meteoritic science, art, and religion from Norway to Antarctica. Most interested in how humans make art and meaning out of the arbitrary falling rocks, Herzog sometimes strays a little bit into vorticism, cutting staccato between flashes of meaning and thought -- but how appropriate for a film about meteors.

Kubrick by Kubrick (France/Poland, Gregory Monro, 2020) Tape-recorded interviews of Kubrick by film critic Michael Ciment play under footage from most of his films. Monro attempts to gently subvert, or at least provide perspective on, the image of Kubrick as obsessive perfectionist; the result may not be a revelatory film study but it’s a very good Kubrick 102. If you’re ready for Kubrick 202, maybe tick this back down to Good.

Charlatan (Czechia/Ireland/Poland/Slovakia, Agnieszka Holland, 2020) Loose biopic of the Czech healer and herbalist Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan; his son Josef Trojan plays young Jan) framed by his 1958 arrest and trial by the Communist government. Holland’s portrait of Mikolášek never goes where the audience expects, just as Trojan’s performance alienates and attracts in equal measure. Her refusal to put Mikolášek into a simple box (despite her monodimensional title) gives depth and realism while Martin Strba’s deliberately cinematic lensing expertly plays with history-film convention.

GOOD

Undine (Germany/France, Christian Petzold, 2020) Undine (Paula Beer), an urban historian who may also be the titular vengeful water-spirit, gets dumped by her lover but meets-cute devoted diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) before we find out for sure. Palpable love for Berlin drenches this somewhat uneven film that kicks into gear on the mystery but goes soppy in the romance, and doesn’t quite consummate either.

The Prophet and the Space Aliens (Israel/Austria, Yoav Shamir, 2020) Invited to receive a (bogus?) award from the Raëlian cult, documentarian Shamir takes Raël (nee Claude Vorilhon) up on his invitation to make a movie about them. Shamir plays it restrained and mostly fair, bending over backwards to not call Raël a con artist and depict the cultists on their own terms. The trouble is, when your subject is a former pop singer and race car aficionado who sees UFOs in 1974 and hears he’s the son of alien Yahweh and gets eager flower brides and oh by the way all religious leaders are still alive as sexy clones on another planet and claims to have cloned a baby in 2002 maybe restraint is not quite the best key for your movie.

Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time (Hungary, Lili Horvát, 2020) Neurosurgeon Marta (Natasa Stork) impulsively returns to Budapest to reunite with her love-at-first sight Janos (Viktor Bodó) but he says he’s never met her before … Huge potentials for noir, romance, and horror loom in the premise but Horvát slowly lets the air out of all of them in 90 minutes. Stork’s tight performance deserves a better, tenser film; as it is she seems not so much a woman on the edge as one sensibly distant from a low-boiling distraction.

OKAY

I’m Your Woman (US, Julia Hart, 2020) Wife of a professional crook, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) must go on the lam when he disappears. Attempting to make a film of the female-occupied negative space around a 70s crime thriller, Hart instead produces something by turns inert and facile. With nothing to do, at length, Brosnahan slowly sinks under the thick patina of 70s production design. Her brief, predictable spurt of agency in the last act comes far too late.
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GenCon Again, Virtually

Get socially distantly hyped for the Best Four Days in Gaming (At Home)! Yes, GenCon exists in the ether this year, so I invite everybody (not just those in driving distance of Indianapolis) to click into the following event-like vidcasts. Tickets still available for all of them! (Because, virtual.) And you know how I never know if panels are going to be streamed? Well, everything's going to be streamed! But no, I don't know anything about what platform or whatever because still nobody would be daft enough to tell me that stuff. So BE THERRRRRE (virtuallyyyyyyy)

(All times Eastern Daylight Time.)

FRIDAY JULY 31

2:00 pm - 3:00 pm: Swords, Spies & Shoggoths: The Pelgrane Press Panel
Join Simon Rogers, Cat Tobin & others from the Pelgrane team for a behind-the-scenes look at what the award-winning RPG publisher's been up to this year, & what they've planned for the coming year!

5:00 pm - 6:00 pm: Gaming With the King in Yellow
Bring the reality-bending horror of Robert W Chambers to your table. Our mavens of terror are here to tear off their pallid masks and reveal the shattering secrets of the Hyades.

8:00 pm - 10:00 pm: The ENnie Awards
Robin and I are among the cavalcade of hosts for the 20th Annual ENnie Awards, along with Mike Pondsmith, Chris Spivey, and Misha Bushyager!

SATURDAY AUGUST 1

2:00 pm - 3:00 pm: Investigative Roleplaying Masterclass
Mystery scenario masters Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws and guests train their magnifying glasses on clue-gathering adventures to reveal the unlikely suspects behind your tabletop woes.

4:00 pm - 5:30 pm: Delta Green: An Evening With A-Cell
Join the authors of Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game for a livestreamed discussion of the game, the fiction and history that inspire it, and an audience Q&A. I will be ducking out of this one early, because ...

5:00 pm - 6:00 pm: Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff (Nearly) Live
Robin D. Laws & Kenneth Hite talk roleplaying, history, conspiracy, occultism, writing, food, movies & whatever you ask them about in this (nearly) live edition of their award-winning podcast.

8:00 pm - 9:00 pm: Horror Roleplaying Masterclass
Join our seasoned horror RPG writers and designers as they provide tips for diving into the fun and chilling world of the horror RPG genre.
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In Memoriam

Robert Munroe (Ensign, Lexington militia, KIA 19 April 1775, Lexington Green)
Javier Jaguar Gutierrez (SFC, 3rd Bn, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), US Army, KIA 8 Feb 2020, Nangarhar, Afghanistan)

And all 559,269 in between.
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[RECIPE] Quaran-Tuna Sandwich

With everyone hunkering down in their hobbit holes, I thought I might share my own superb version of the humble tuna-fish sandwich to let the stockpile go by a little more deliciously. So here it is.

QUARAN-TUNA SANDWICHES
(makes two or three sandwiches)

1 7 oz. can tuna, drained
1 rib celery, diced
1.5 scallions, green and light-green parts, sliced thin
1 dill pickle spear, seeded and diced
1-2 forkfuls mayonnaise, to taste
1/2 TSP minced garlic
1/2 TSP ginger paste
1/3 TSP Old Bay seasoning
2 TSP soy sauce
1 TSP lime juice

Serve on toast, add a slice of tomato or cheese at your discretion.

Feel free to double the tuna (and other ingredients) because the flavors come together even more nicely in the leftovers after a few hours in the refrigerator. After three decades I had mostly trained myself to go easy on the mayonnaise and make this with just one heaping forkful, but my social distance apparently demands a little more comfort fat right now.
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Book of the DunDraCon Cow

Once more I wing my way to the semi-sunny semi-shores of San Ramon, California this weekend for DunDraCon, which has been playing D&D and kindred divers diversions even longer than have I. Once more I shall provide my own divers diversions, in the form of panel presentations, to wit:

SATURDAY FEB 15

1:30 PM - 3:00 PM: City Building
Presenter(s): : Michael Blum, Kenneth Hite, and Doc Cross
The long-running seminar about the nuts and bolts of creating and using cities in RPGs. This year we’ll have two sub-topics: underground cities, and small cities. [TriValley 2]

6:00 PM - 7:30 PM: Alternate Histories
Presenter(s): Ken Hite and Dana Lombardy
The very popular War College panel discussion continues! Authors and game designers Dana Lombardy and Ken Hite examine possible alternate histories and what their impact might have been. Audience participation is encouraged. FREE HAND OUT: an updated guide to sources for alternate histories will be provided to attendees. [TriValley 2]

SUNDAY FEB 16

10:00 AM - 11:00 AM: What's Cool
Presenter(s): Kenneth Hite and Bruce Harlick
Ken Hite, national authority, and Bruce Harlick, local Hero, go over the outstanding games and gear of early 2020. Get the scoop on the new games in the Dealer Room. [TriValley 2]
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Metatopia Rising

As I do every year they'll have me, I shall this year once more adorn the greatest game design conference/protospiel/empanada marketing scheme known to mankind, the glorious Metatopia convention in idyllic Morristown, New Jersey. This year's show occurs November 8-10, so if you're in the tri-state area and interested in game design, playtesting, delicious fillings in fried dough, or hearing ME, you too should head on up and do some or all of those things. And to my beloved if slothful interlocutors, YES these panels will all be recorded and eventually put up on the Web somewhere unless something gets screwed up as it in fact did with my panel on the numinous a few years ago. So maybe think about coming out anyway.

FRIDAY NOVEMBER 8

12 Noon - 1:00PM "How To Pitch Your Game" presented by Darren Watts, Kenneth Hite, Geoffrey Engelstein. You made a game! Congratulations! Now explain your incredible game in one sentence. That isn't as easy as it sounds. You want people to buy into your game as players, as investors, or as retailers. You will only have one chance to make that first impression. It needs to have impact. If you want to see your game successful on a crowdfunding site, or sold by your local game store, then you need to know what kind of pitch types and styles to maximize both what you say and target the right audience.

9:00PM - 10:00PM "Creating Mysteries in RPGs" presented by Kenneth Hite, Darren Watts. Mysteries are among the hardest genres to run successfully in tabletop games. How can designers structure stories to meaningfully involve players, guide them to clues and help them put them together to solve a crime without spoonfeeding them? How can GMs control pacing to duplicate the feel of classic whodunits?

SATURDAY NOVEMBER 9

3:00PM - 4:00PM "Integrating World Building Into Traditional RPGs" presented by Ryan O'Grady, Kenneth Hite, Brennan Taylor. There's something satisfying about taking ownership of a piece of the world as a player and watching it flourish (or not). There have been various approaches to this over the years (Ars Magica, Microscope, The Quiet Year, even D&D!) Let's discuss what player involvement of world building really means and different approaches for incorporating it into traditional RPGs.

6:00PM - 7:00PM "The Three-Ring Setting: Scope in Game Design" presented by Kenneth Hite. A METATOPIA tradition - Kenneth Hite rambling about game design. In this case the notion of scope: How big should your setting be? How can you design a setting to contain multiple core game activities, and should you? As always, Ken has notions and questions, and hopes you have more of both as we explore Bigness (and un-Bigness) in games.

SUNDAY NOVEMBER 10

12 Noon - 1:00PM "Procedural Play In RPGs" presented by Darren Watts, Kenneth Hite, Clark Valentine. RPGs that have heavily procedural elements about them: part of the game that represents some part of the fiction that is resolved in a very procedural, step-by-step manner. Mini-games or games-within-games might qualify. Examples include things like Blades In The Dark and elements of Burning Wheel. Tachyon Squadron's space fighter combat system might count also. What sorts of fictional elements lend themselves to this? What makes for a good, fun, engaging procedure that doesn't feel contrived or tacked on?
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About Last CIFF

So this year's Chicago International Film Festival lived roughly sidelong to expectations, which is to say the films I saw were slightly above Good on average, and once more there was but one (1) South Korean film which had there been more obviously would have turbocharged that average Goodness a good bit.

Also this year, my boon companion his_regard scaled back for job-interview sorts of reasons so despite much stepping up by young boon c.s Colin, Darcy, and Isaac I managed to only see seventeen films this round. (I strongly suspect that either the Chilean political thriller Spider or the Iranian policier Just 6.5 might have goosed that Goodness number a bit; I shall have to keep an eye out.) Speaking of the films I saw, then, I speak of them below. I could make a case for either Bring Me Home or Buoyancy as Pinnacles, but in the moment neither quite had the vertiginous seventh sense of perfection that I look for so avidly.

RECOMMENDED

Bring Me Home (South Korea, Kim Seung-woo) Nurse and mother Jung Yae-on (Lee Young-ae) searches for her son, who went missing six years ago, following a lead to a fishing station and its corrupt cop enforcer Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung). Korean films do not generally soften their blows, and this genuinely harrowing psychological thriller is no exception. Even the inevitable violent climax avoids Western-style catharsis, becoming yet more chaotic horror leaving unease behind. Just another powerful triumph from by far the best national film culture on the planet.

Buoyancy (Australia, Rodd Rathjen) Impoverished teen Chakra (Sam Heng) leaves his Cambodian village for work in Thailand but gets enslaved on a fishing boat. Gripping drama of character and situation fully digs into both, becoming a modern-day Jack London story complete with the sea, exploitation, and brutal violence. Sam Petty’s sound design exacerbates and completes the experience.

Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (Spain/Estonia/Ethiopia/Latvia/Romania, Miguel Llanso) CIA agents DT Gargano (Daniel Tadesse) and Palmer Eldritch (Augustin Mateo) must enter the Psychobook cyberspace to defeat the Soviet virus “Stalin” (and the Beta-Ethiopian dictator Batfro, who yes dresses as Batman) in this gonzo mashup of spy-fi, martial arts, cyberpunk, lucha, and every other genre with “-sploitation” added to it. Shot in three different formats plus stop-motion, Llanso’s inspired PKD-WSB bricolage somehow hangs together around its many many curves and triumphs, backed by a killer free-jazz soundtrack by Bill Dixon.

Once Upon A River (US, Haroula Rose) In 1978 Michigan, teenage Annie Oakley-wannabe Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) heads up the Stark River to find her mother. Rose (and her cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby) pulls off a tour de force of tone, balancing and adjusting natural beauty with good and evil, growth and fear. DelaCerna commands the screen in every scene despite barely having any dialogue; John Aston makes a superb foil as a dying misanthrope.

Varda by Agnés (France, Agnés Varda) The beloved filmmaker assembled this documentary montage of her lectures on (and excerpts of) her own work just before her death this March, and the portion of it that unpacks her cinematic creation does so with the genius and generosity that became her trademarks. Most of the last half of the film deals with her post-2000 career as a digital installation artist, a less interesting and more remote body of work that leaves you wanting more of the first half.

Mr. Jones (Poland/UK/Ukraine, Agnieszka Holland) Curious about the Soviet economy,  Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) follows a lead to Ukraine where he witnesses Stalin’s terror-famine. After a long takeoff, the movie gets to the USSR and becomes a wild blend of Carol Reed and David Lean, going from the vile decadence surrounding the New York Times’ Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, beautifully odious) into the white nightmare around Stalino.

Vast of Night (US, Andrew Patterson) While everyone in Cayuga, New Mexico one night in 1959 attends the high school basketball game, late night DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and precocious switchboard girl Fay (Sierra McCormick) discover a strange -- dare I say suppressed -- transmission. The word “bravura” could have been coined to describe this film, and so much (including the small-town dynamic) works so well that I feel like a churl kvetching about a slight misstep in the ending.

Carmilla (UK, Emily Harris) Isolated in rural Sussex, young Lara (Hanna Rae) welcomes the presence of the mysterious Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) although her upright governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) has her doubts. Harris soft-pedals the supernatural elements of LeFanu’s source novel almost into invisibility, playing up Lara’s naive excitement and love for the new girl. Although the script wavers between murk and didacticism, the strong acting and Michael Wood’s eager camera work (much of it in candle-lit night interiors) keep it on the Recommended side of the bubble.

GOOD

The Whistlers (Romania/France/Germany, Corneliu Porumboiu) Femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) inveigles corrupt Bucharest cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) into learning the whistling language of the Canary Islanders to break her partner out of jail, and no it doesn’t make a lot more sense than that after you’ve watched it either. Porumboiu’s deadpan style blends unevenly with the crime thriller genre, and Cristi (and the viewer) only learn he’s not the protagonist far too late in the proceedings. But it still racks up plenty of great sequences on the way to not at all being Charley Varrick with whistling.

Knives and Skin (US, Jennifer Reeder) After teenage Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) disappears in Big River, Illinois, her mother and schoolmates remain haunted. Very ambitious blend of David Lynch and Richard Linklater ultimately drowns in a too-large cast of characters, most written in the same voice; intriguing story notes appear only to vanish like Carolyn. But the luminous color-high cinematography by Christopher Rejano, Badalamenti-esque score by Nick Zinner, and compellingly sharp edits by Mike Olenik enhance your experience throughout.

Miyamoto (Japan, Tetsuya Mariko) Young schlemiel with anger issues Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) hits the rapids in his relationship with Yasuko (Yu Aoi) as we follow two halves of their story to inevitable confrontation. Ambitious plotting and roller-coaster emotion (and a viscerally unsettling fight scene) almost distract from what a drip the main character is throughout, but help drive the endings to almost inevitable anticlimax.

OKAY

Paradise Next (Japan, Yoshihiro Hanno) Two gangsters -- taciturn, cool Shima (Etsushi Toyokawa) and smirking punk Makino (Satoshi Tsumabuki) -- hide out in rural Taiwan with bartender Xiao En (Nikki Hsieh), who eerily resembles a dead girl linked to both. Look, I’m as fond of beautiful yet oblique emotional collage as the next Taiwanese director, but you’ve got to give me something we can agree is a plot before you’re getting out of Okay.

La Llorona (Guatemala/France, Jayro Bustamante) Mobs of protesters besiege the house of elderly, genocidal general Enrique (Julio Diaz), while the vengeful spirit La Llorona (Maria Mercedes Coroy) infiltrates it. Regardless of its virtues as indictment of Guatemala’s actual past genocidaires, it fails as a horror film because the contemptible General never has the remotest audience sympathy and La Llorona (a beautifully creepy portrayal by director and actor wasted) never really threatens anyone else. Promising threads about the General’s Alzheimer’s and elderly weakness drop unused.

The Great Green Wall (UK, Jared P. Scott) Documentary follows Malian singer-songwriter Inna Modja across the Sahel collaborating with local musicians on an album to raise awareness and funds for the titular wall, a planned reforestation belt from Senegal to Djibouti. It provides a 101-level overview of the area's various interlocked crises from an unabashedly activist point of view; those seeking a close or hard look at the challenges and promises of reforestation (or full versions of the songs) should look elsewhere.

8: A South African Horror Story (South Africa, Harold Hölscher) When Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) shows up at the farm inherited by hapless white folks, he fixes their generator and befriends their daughter Mary (Keita Luna) so of course he’s got a demon in a bag. “Single Black Handyman” doesn’t deliver much but rote plot ratchets and gratuitous misogyny on the way to a wildly colorful but nugatory ending. Bump it up to Good if the African lore and setting really move you.

The Moneychanger (Uruguay/Argentina, Federico Vieroj) Somewhat ambitious and totally venal, Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) oozes to the top of 1970s Uruguay’s money laundering and offshoring business. Somewhat ambition isn’t enough to drive this lackluster film, though, despite a game cast and a suitably grainy color palette. Like its main character it gets partway somewhere but doesn’t have nearly enough fun along the way.

The Hypnotist (Finland, Arthur Franck) Olavi Hakasalo reinvents himself as Olliver Hawk, Finland’s missionary hypnotist -- but what of his relationship with longtime Finnish President Kekkonen? What of it indeed? In this mix of recreation and archive, of self-aggrandizement and shrugging guesswork, somewhere there could be a gripping documentary about the relationship between politics and hypnosis and showmanship. Not here, though, in what my friend Emily describes as “the world’s most conspiratorial ASMR video.”