Wednesday, March 22, 2017

7:00 PM - 8:00 PM

24: Legacy has become the show that interrupts my attempts to say "wait, but..." by purring, "shhhh, shhhh, shhhh." 24 has always been ridiculous, demanding more suspension of disbelief than just about any show on television. I know this on an intellectual level. But somehow, on a gut level, this season feels to me like it's demanding more and delivering less -- a situation that might be growing with each new episode.

Why doesn't Jadalla just immediately kill Carter? He only needs Andy, and was planning to use torture instead of coercion to force cooperation anyway. Is Jadalla so stimulated by debate over the nature of religion and justice that he keeps Carter around for conversation? (I'm gonna say no.)

What exactly explains the turn for Isaac from "we gotta get the hell out of here" to "I gotta call up my crew and go in guns blazing"? Why has Mariana suddenly gone all Chloe and started sniping at Director Mullins? Is Tony going to get to do anything meaningful, or was he really just brought it to twirl the torture mustache for a couple of installments?

Can we really believe that a drone strike would be ordered on U.S. soil? And in a situation where there would be known collateral casualties? Are we really doing the "villain trade up" cliche again?

And is the fact that none of those questions have good answers forgiven by the fact that we got some fun action? This packed hour included car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs, and missile launches. Plus there was some truly awkward spousal drama between Rebecca Ingram and John Donovan. I mean, when I stopped "struggling" and just let 24 "hold me," it was oddly comforting/fun. But at the same time, so silly!

Perhaps I need to stop doing these more thoughtful write-ups of 24 and instead go back to just the parade of quippy thoughts I used to offer in response to a 24 episode. Well, actually, perhaps I need to stop watching altogether. But I've come so far already, and this is a benefit to the format: I'm that close to finding out how this crazy "day" ends. Gotta see it through to the finish, right?

Let's dispense with the grades, at least. At this point you're either trapped on this ride like me or you're not, right?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Live Game

Sunday night, I attended an unconventional concert -- Game of Thrones: The Live Concert Experience. Attending live orchestral performances of film and television soundtracks isn't out of the norm for me; that isn't what made it unconventional. No, what made it unusual was the venue: the Pepsi Center.

This touring show is playing arenas across the U.S. and Canada, a fact that made me initially hesitant to go. It simply didn't strike me as the ideal place to listen to an orchestra... the same place you watch your local hockey or basketball team? And so I was going to pass until a friend of mine caught the tour two weeks ago in his city, and gave an endorsement that made me reconsider.

It turns out that this Game of Thrones concert is sort of like a performance from an alternate universe, a reality where a TV composer can draw as big a crowd as an arena rock band. Tens of thousands packed the stadium for a concert that felt like watching an A-list rock band. Series composer Ramin Djawadi was a star, smiling for screaming fans. The whole thing unfolded on a set hundreds of feet long, involving pyrotechnics, costumes, video clips, and elaborate pop-up (and flown-in) set decorations.

Now, to be realistic, most of the people were there for love of the series itself -- cheering whenever Daenerys or Jon Snow or Tyrion appeared on the jumbo screen suspended above the screen. They probably didn't know the music itself as closely as I do. But that in and of itself would have seemed like a concert from an alternate universe just a decade ago -- that the top shows on TV would be genre shows? That any show on HBO would fill an arena with shrieking fans? Kind of crazy and awesome.

Strange conditions or no, it was a fun show. I got to see a host of less common instruments played live, from hammered dulcimer to didgeridoo to electric cello to things I can't even name. Djawadi handed over the conductor's baton for a few key songs to play a featured instrument himself. And he played "all the hits," including memorable cues he wrote for the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the attack on Hardhome, and Cersei's vengeance in King's Landing.

I had a great time, and I'm glad my friend's recommendation got me to reconsider going. I'll pay that recommendation forward. If you're a fan of Game of Thrones and the concert is touring soon in your city, check it out.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Life in Movies

Another one of those things that gets passed around social media has been making the rounds. This one is about movies and thus, as they say, Relevant to My Interests. You're supposed to name your favorite movie from each year you've been alive.

So here goes...

1975 -- Jaws
Many of you might say One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but c'mon, it's Jaws!

1976 -- Murder by Death
This is a year of many highly regarded classics that I myself do not hold in the highest regard. (The Omen, Rocky, Taxi Driver, Carrie, All the President's Men, Network.)

1977 -- Star Wars

1978 -- Halloween

1979 -- Alien

1980 -- The Empire Strikes Back
Airplane! actually gave Empire a run for its money here. I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

1981 -- Raiders of the Lost Ark
Though History of the World, Part I was in the running.

1982 -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
With The Thing also making a strong showing.

1983 -- The Right Stuff
Actual space travel edged out the galaxy far, far away this year.

1984 -- Ghostbusters

1985 -- Back to the Future
Still my favorite movie ever, but Clue is another beloved favorite from the same year.

1986 -- Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Though Little Shop of Horrors and Aliens demand a recount.

1987 -- The Princess Bride

1988 -- Who Framed Roger Rabbit
But ask me closer to Christmas, and the answer might be Scrooged.

1989 -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The Abyss is also excellent (the extended cut only, thank you).

1990 -- Edward Scissorhands

1991 -- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
But damn, it's hard picking between that and The Silence of the Lambs.

1992 -- Sneakers
I love a good heist.

1993 -- Schindler's List
Given the chances I'd actually sit down and watch Schindler's List again any time soon, I should also note that Groundhog Day and The Fugitive were this year.

1994 -- The Shawshank Redemption

1995 -- Apollo 13
This strong year for movies also included Se7en, 12 Monkeys, and The American President.

1996 -- Scream
Okay, this was a tight one, and nothing from this year made my Top 100. I maybe could have gone with Star Trek: First Contact, but the tightrope act of making Scream both a legit horror film and a bit of a satire of a horror film tips the scale for me.

1997 -- Gattaca
Good Will Hunting and The Fifth Element are also worthy choices, but Gattaca speaks directly to me.

1998 -- Rounders
Another movie that speaks directly to me. And I could offer up 5 more amazing movies before I'd get to that year's Best Picture Oscar winner (Shakespeare in Love): Pleasantville, Saving Private Ryan, Dark City, There's Something About Mary, and American History X.

1999 -- Galaxy Quest
J.J. Abrams once called Galaxy Quest the best Star Trek movie ever made, and he's kind of right. I'd also dub 1999 the strongest movie year of my lifetime. All of these are in my Top 100: American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Office Space, Toy Story 2, Fight Club, The Cider House Rules, American Pie, and The Matrix.

2000 -- Memento
Though I'm pretty sure this wasn't actually in wide release until 2001.

2001 -- Moulin Rouge
Here's another strong year, which included Frailty, Ocean's Eleven, Monsters Inc., and The Fellowship of the Ring. (If you're saddened by the recent death of Bill Paxton and have never seen Frailty, do yourself a favor and check it out.)

2002 -- The Ring

2003 -- Love Actually

2004 -- Finding Neverland
But Team America: World Police is also great.

2005 -- Serenity
Though if Joss Whedon wasn't giving me closure here for Firefly, I would have picked Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

2006 -- The Prestige

2007 -- For the Bible Tells Me So
An incredibly powerful documentary about religious condemnation of homosexuality. But here's another year with a raft of options in my Top 100 -- Gone Baby Gone, Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and The Mist.

2008 -- Doubt
WALL-E is a rather close second.

2009 -- Up
After coming close a number of times, Pixar finally gets the top spot for me.

2010 -- Toy Story 3
...and immediately goes back-to-back.

2011 -- 50/50
I know, weird choice. It disarmed me coming from people you wouldn't normally expect to nail sentiment. But I also kind of wanted to give the nod to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 for wrapping that saga up well.

2012 -- The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Cabin in the Woods is a close second.

2013 -- Bridegroom
Not that I'm the Academy or anything, but I'm not sure this documentary ever received a theatrical release. In any case, I was quite moved by it. If we're going a more "official" route, though, I'd praise Before Midnight -- though you probably have to have seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset for it to land as powerfully as it did for me

2014 -- Whiplash
Nothing else even came close.

2015 -- Inside Out
Pixar does it again.

2016 -- 10 Cloverfield Lane

And there you have it. Tell me where I have it totally wrong... or totally right. Or better still, let's see your list.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dangerous Talk

On a recent gaming night with friends, no board game ever made it out of the box. Instead, we spent hours playing "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes."

This is a cooperative game involving one player on a laptop (well, any PC or Mac) and one or more partners rifling through a stack of printouts. The computer player is looking at a suitcase bomb with multiple "modules" scattered across its exterior. Each module has wires to be cut, passwords to be entered, buttons to be pressed, and more. That player must rotate the bomb on screen and describe to all the partners what it is he's seeing.

Meanwhile, it's the partners have the information on how to defuse the bomb. A printout on wires will tell you what to do based on how many wires you see, what color they are, or how they're connected. A printout on strange symbols will tell you the proper order to press buttons in, depending on which symbols are present. So on, through a dozen different possible puzzles.

The game does an excellent job of getting players to work together. The player on the computer has to have good time management and attentiveness -- some bomb modules are "needier" and can explode quickly, and different puzzle types take more "leg work" on the part of the team than others. Optimal diffusing involves keeping as many of your teammates working at all times as you can.

At the same time, all the different puzzles call on different ways of thinking. There are puzzles for people who are good at spatial orientation, people who rock at word games, people with strong memories, and more. Everyone in the team can get their moment to shine as you figure out who is best at which type of puzzle... and then you can increase the difficulty if you like by assigning different puzzles to different people.

In terms of difficulty, the game offers plenty as it is. A bomb can have 10 modules or more on it, and the range of countdown lengths factors into the challenge. The puzzles are all procedurally generated, too. Even once you progress through all the difficulty settings, the game has great replay value as different module combinations show up each time you start on a new bomb. (And even as long as we played, we didn't come close to working our way through all the difficulty settings.)

I'm not sure where the sweet spot is in terms of number of players, but I know that with 4 we had a great time for hours on end. And I'm eagerly looking forward to playing again.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes gets an A in my book. You can go download it right now for yourself from their web site. And if you have two or more puzzle-minded friends, I strongly suggest you go do just that.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

6:00 PM - 7:00 PM

Things continued to grow ever more ridiculous on 24: Legacy this week... though this time at least, there was an effort made to mine character drama from the insanity. And the episode was better than the last couple for it.

For example, setting up a situation where Andy has to hold a gun on and then tie up his ex is pretty far out there. But it did all sort of bizarrely work in the moment -- at least, once you got on board with the notion that Andy would agree to a suicide mission in the first place. Then there were the exchanges between Isaac and Nicole -- totally heightened, but a place you kind of have to go when the characters really think they might be at death's door.

But the craziest moment with an ex in the hour had to be Rebecca, who called up her ex to torture her current father-in-law. I'm not sure that you can make a past relationship between Rebecca and Tony Almeida fit in in any way -- not by the timeline, and not for how it would probably have been a suspect item on her record when applying to run CTU. Still, it made for a fairly entertaining nest of potential drama. Rebecca is choosing duty and country over her husband, and heading down a very misguided and dark road in the name of that duty. Plus, we get Tony back in the mix.

I'm going to be interested to see if the writers actually go through with the torture in next week's episode. Many elements this season seem to have been calibrated as a response to changes in perception since 24's heyday. They've been a bit ham-fisted at times, but the efforts to show "good Muslims," "coping with racism," and more diversity have been there. So will they go and puncture the big torture myth?

Maybe, maybe not. But first they've teed up a big car chase involving Isaac and Nicole, and big jeopardy for Eric (why didn't the bad guys just shoot him?) and Andy. Tune in next week! As for this week, I give it a B.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Slender Thread

HBO has premiered a new documentary film in the last few weeks: Beware the Slenderman. It's about the creepy Slenderman character of urban legend, and specifically about two pre-teen girls who attempted to murder their friend in an effort to appease him.

This documentary held tantalizing potential for me. Myths and how they grow, moody tension, true crime, a dive into a damaged psyche -- there was lots to mine here that could be quite... well, not "entertaining," to be sure, but "captivating." Unfortunately, the documentary fell short in almost every area.

Initially, Beware the Slenderman is most concerned with the horror of this particular incident. It's a slow burn chronicle of how two young girls set up their friend for sacrificial slaughter, interwoven with interviews of family members utterly at a loss to explain how this all could happen. It's the most effective section of the movie, as any preconceived notions you might have about the attack confront the accounts of the people it happened to.

The middle section of the film tries to expand on the Slenderman myth itself -- how it began and what it represents. While the former question is answered quite specifically, the film suggests that the latter question is unknowable. The "expertise" of the people interviewed seems shaky, and the analysis amounts to an unsatisfying and vague "Slenderman means different things to different people." In arguing that Slenderman is a sort of Rorschach test, the film ultimately renders this entire middle section as a superfluous waste of screen time.

The last chunk of the film turns to mental illness as the real reason behind the attack, and seeks to help the audience better understand the often misunderstood condition of schizophrenia. But not nearly enough time is devoted to this angle for a thoughtful or enlightening examination, and it all feels like an afterthought following 90 minutes of horror and ghost stories. If indeed mental health was the thesis of the film, it should have been a bigger and more consistent part of it.

Perhaps I'm the ghoul, seeking diversion in such a terrible real life tale. In any case, Beware the Slenderman was too scattershot an effort to provide it. I grade it a C-.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Costumes Out in Force

My Denver-based readers may want to think about a trip to the Denver Art Museum in the coming weeks. I went last weekend to check out the touring exhibit Star Wars and the Power of Costume, a collection of costumes, design sketches, and props from the seven episodic Star Wars movies.

I've seen a few of exhibits of movie memorabilia before, and it's always fascinating to see just how much you're being fooled by what you think you see on screen. Even in this age of high definition cameras and projection and televisions, things don't necessarily look as high quality or as realistic as you think they do. Weird tricks of lighting and camera placement complete an illusion of which the costumes and props are just one part.

I'm sort of starting at the end of the exhibit here, but nowhere was this more apparent than the Darth Vader costume used for the end of Episode III. My husband commented that if you saw someone show up to a costume party in it, you might think to yourself that it's a shame that they didn't quite get it right having gone to so much trouble.

It's not quite as tall as you'd imagine (though neither is Hayden Christensen, I suppose), the silver stripes on the shoulder piece seem off, the readouts and switches on the chest piece don't seem fully integrated... plenty of little things that a Star Wars super fan will notice. For some people, I suppose this might "ruin your childhood" or something, but I found it a quite interesting affirmation of movie magic. On screen, you believe it completely. If anything, it gave me more respect for the artists who knew exactly what the final effect of their work would be.

In any case, plenty of other costumes were just as lavish in person as you'd imagine. At least one-third of the entire collection was outfits worn by Amidala throughout the prequel trilogy. Whereas many characters would wear the same costumes for an entire movie, Amidala would have new clothes for almost every scene -- and the detailed work that went into them was staggering. Rich fabrics, insane detailing, and rare accessories were on display everywhere.

If the classic trilogy was more your speed, then you could focus on the slave Leia outfit, Boba Fett, Chewbacca with Han Solo, and even an actual Yoda puppet.

The Force Awakens was represented too, with side-by-side comparisons of stormtroopers and Rebels from the classic trilogy and Episode VII, plus the outfits of Rey and Finn (complete with Poe's jacket).

We spent over two hours carefully strolling through the collection and taking it all in. If movies in general are your thing, or Star Wars in particular (and I believe this describes most of my readers perfectly), then you should consider checking it out in the coming weeks before the exhibit rolls along to a new city. (Or look for it to come to your city in the future.)