Monday, September 26, 2016

Good Gods

For years, I'd been intending to read something by Neil Gaiman, but it was only recently that I finally got around to it. The selection was his novel American Gods, a choice spurred on by the forthcoming TV adaptation (co-created by Bryan Fuller), and the rave reviews the book received from my husband.

American Gods is the story of ex-convict Shadow, whose life is upended when he comes into contact with actual gods. These beings exist and have power because humans believe in them. But the power of older, traditional gods -- brought to America by immigrants -- is waning as new idols of technology are on the rise. Shadow finds himself in the employ of one god in particular, and caught in the middle of a power struggle between old and new.

Even as my husband praised this book, he predicted I wouldn't like it very much. He was right in that I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as him, and it took me quite a while to get through it. Nevertheless, there were things here that did appeal to me.

Gaiman definitely has a way with words. His writing is endlessly clever, from the turns of phrase he conjures to the fun conceits of many of his scenes. He's also top notch at characterization, whether letting you inside the head of his principle character, or painting a vivid supporting character in a single chapter. These two strengths work together time and time again throughout this novel, and a pantheon of gods is the perfect showcase.

Just when you think you've read the best scene (or you've met the best character) of the book, along will come another. There are Slavic gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, figures from American folklore, each with their own well-thought-out perspective on the world. There's the temptress goddess media, reaching out to Shadow as television characters. There's the god who immediately fades from human memory, and the slick writing Gaiman uses to portray this. There's the wily Mr. Wednesday, so vivid on the page that you can only imagine exactly the actor they wound up casting to play him, Ian McShane.

Yes, as a string of "episodes," if you will, American Gods is quite simply brilliant. (And one hopes that means it will make a brilliant television series.) As an overall story? Well, this is indeed where I didn't like the book very much. The notion of a conflict between old and new gods is an unabashed Macguffin, a Christmas tree to be decorated with shiny ornaments. Whole chapters go by without advancing the story at all; it's just Shadow in some self-contained situation involving some other god. Things move glacially toward a resolution that's rather anticlimactic. And it's surely not helped by the fact that the version of the book now most readily available is the revised edition, in which Gaiman restored 12,000 words his editor made him cut from the original.

I come out of American Gods with a healthy respect for Neil Gaiman as a writer, but a skeptical view of him as a storyteller. Usually, when the scales are balanced like that, my overall opinion of a book is negative. In this case, though, the writing itself is so smart that I'd have to grade the book a B. I will probably give Gaiman another chance at some point down the line. But it probably won't be until the right recommendation comes along.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Music from the Beyond

With Star Trek Beyond, many of the key figures behind the previous two films stepped aside -- J.J. Abrams handed off directing duties to Justin Lin, while Simon Pegg and Doug Jung took over writing the script from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. But one key off-screen piece of the reboot franchise remained in place: composer Michael Giacchino.

Although the Star Trek Beyond score is peppered with themes Giacchino created for the two prior Star Trek films, it's also a very different score in many subtle ways. In particular, I wonder if the experience of scoring Jurassic World (and there utilizing the melodies written by John Williams for the original film) rubbed off a little. Of course, Williams has always been an influence for Giacchino. (How could he not be?) But the connections feel more explicit to me in the Star Trek Beyond score than ever before.

Mind you, Michael Giacchino is still his own man. His track titles are still pun-tastic. Tracks like "Krall-y Krall-y Oxen Free" and "Shutdown Happens" feature phrases of his signature style from the TV series Lost -- frightened strings, descending brass groans, and thunderous timpani. He continues to write moving concertos that showcase his emotional melodies, as in "Thank Your Lucky Star Date" and "A Lesson in Vulcan Mineralogy."

But throughout this score are little bursts that sound like pure John Williams. "A Swarm Reception" has an inexorable two-note pulse on low strings that briefly evokes Jaws. The use of trumpet in "Thank Your Lucky Star Date" might make you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The whirling flutes of "Crash Decisions," and the woodwind sections in "Par-tay for the Course," are reminiscent of Star Wars.

It's this last connection that's particularly interesting for a movie score enthusiast like myself. The upcoming stand alone Star Wars movie, Rogue One, is going to be the first of the franchise not to have a John Williams score. And though it had been originally announced that Alexandre Desplat would be the man behind the music, he recently had to step aside. His replacement? None other than Michael Giacchino. So perhaps Star Trek Beyond gives us a little taste of what might be in store.

Until then, I can enjoy the many highlights from this score. "The Dance of the Nebula" is an uneasy, bell-like melody on top of sinister orchestral accompaniment. The theme for the new character Jaylah is driven by a primitive sounding percussion that's sometimes a wild frenzy ("Jaylah Damage") and other times a controlled fury ("Mocking Jaylah"). There are all-out action cues (the staccato xylophones of "Hitting the Saucer a Little Hard" and blasting horns of "MotorCycles of Relief"). There are more contemplative tracks (the classic Star Trek use of solo soprano on "In Artifacts as in Life", or the sense of invention in the free time "Franklin, My Dear").

I'd say that overall, this isn't quite as strong a score as Giacchino's two previous Star Trek efforts. Nevertheless, there's plenty to like here, and more than enough to make it a good addition to my collection. I give the Star Trek Beyond soundtrack a B+.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Foot Notes

The saying goes that truth is stranger than fiction. Documentary films often set out to demonstrate this, but rarely find a subject that proves the point better than Finders Keepers.

Finders Keepers is the story of a custody battle over a human leg. The saga begins when John Wood is in a serious plane crash that kills his father and results in his own leg being amputated at the knee. Through a turn of events best left for the film to detail, he keeps his own severed limb... but stashes it in a storage unit and subsequently fails to pay the bill. When Shannon Whisnant buys the contents at auction, he acquires the foot, and is determined to ride it to his 15 minutes of fame. A legal battle over the severed limb ensues.

This is ultimately a movie about people with a serious void in their lives needing to be filled. For Wood, it's the loss of his father -- a void he initially tries to fill with alcohol. For Whisnant, it's the need to be somebody, to have the world see him as the brilliant entrepreneur he sees himself when looking in the mirror. So the documentary is in some ways a meditation on all these serious matters -- alcoholism, grief, inferiority complexes, longing.

But you really have to read a lot of this into the film yourself, between the lines. You have to open yourself to the possibility of feeling sorry for these people. And neither the situation nor the way the film presents it make it easy to feel that way. It's far easier to point and laugh at the Carolina rednecks, and feel superior from the comfort of your couch.

Yes, the documentary features lots of interviews with the families of Wood and Whisnant, and tries to show how these men are tearing things apart through their actions. But it spends just as much time showing footage of snickering newscasters covering the story, talk show hosts seizing at the chance to fill an episode's time, and generally presenting the sideshow aspect of the tale.

It's an intriguing story, but perhaps no more so in a deep dive than it is just to hear in summary. I give Finders Keepers a C. It's a sometimes fun diversion, but also a bit of a missed opportunity to say something more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Ghost

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked off its new season last night with a tightly packed hour setting the stage for stories to come. It put a lot of intriguing elements into play.

All the marketing has been focused on the arrival of Ghost Rider, something that meant little and less to me going into the episode. I've never read a Ghost Rider comic, nor have I seen the Nicholas Cage film incarnations. (In the latter case, at least, I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.) About all I knew was that he was a character with a flaming head and a motorcycle... and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway, half of that information turned out to be wrong.

Interestingly, Ghost Rider felt to me like the least essential element of the episode, story-wise. Not that he wasn't interesting (because he mostly was), and not that there isn't plenty they could do with him (because there definitely is). But the story involving him felt like it came to a partial close -- as in, Daisy seemed to come to a decision about him in the end, and so it felt like we could easily go several episodes without seeing him again.

Tonally, however, Ghost Rider was the episode -- a transforming power on the series itself. The vibe I got from him was that he'd be more at home on a Netflix Marvel series than on ABC; he's a dark and disturbed character whose world is filled with violence and death. And it felt like he pulled the needle in that direction for the whole show. I can't recall a scene of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. more gory than the opening, nor a visual effect more crafted to be legitimately scary than his flaming skull.

But then, the other stories involving our familiar characters were equally dark. I was concerned with the tease at the end of season three that the show was (even more than usual) setting up to be the Daisy Hour, but we saw plenty of everyone else, having settled into a rather unhappy, certainly uncomfortable new norm at their jobs. The specter of the new agency director hung over everything -- and we cleverly didn't even get to meet him this week.

I like how the characters were all fractured and separated from each other. The tighter the pairing, the more intriguing it is. So having Fitz and Simmons still as a couple, but putting her in a position of authority over him on the job is a big deal. Then, sailing into that storm, is Radcliffe, whose android experiments now force Fitz to hide something from Simmons. Instantly, you have for me the most interesting ongoing story line of the new season.

But the fracturing of Coulson and May is nearly as intriguing to me. It started as merely physical separation, as the two people who trust each other most are split apart -- one in the field, and one relegated to training other agents. That didn't stop them from working together... but May becoming infected by whatever the Crazy Vision Making Ghost Woman Thing is is surely going to. May's a great choice for this plot development, as she's the character most able to "keep it together." I feel like for almost anyone else, it would be hard to justify the character not instantly going crazy like the villainous redshirts of this first episode. May might be able to hold out for a while, generating some tension along the way.

Pretty much the one thing I wasn't drawn in by in this first episode was some of the over-the-top GoPro-style photography peppered throughout (May's sparring session, Ghost Rider's trunk closing). Flashy, too big a break in style, not justified by any narrative or emotional throughline... it was just "look, a new toy!"

Overall? Season 4, color me intrigued. I give the premiere episode a B+.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bloody Vikings

There are some board games that only grow in my esteem the more I think about them. Then there are games that go the other way. Vikings on Board is an unfortunate case of the latter.

In Vikings on Board, players vie for control of a series of departing ships. Each ship begins the game as a bow and three segments, and will sail at the end of the round in which a stern is attached. The three segments each provide control pips to one of the players: 1, 2, or 3 pips for the player color. Control of the ship goes to the player with the most total pips (with ties being broken in favor of who is frontmost). That control pays off as good tiles are added to the ships throughout the game. The controller of a sailing ship gets to pick the good tile he wants to acquire, with second place getting second choice of the remainder, and so on. There are three types of goods in the game, and players can push which ones they want to be most valuable. The highest total score of goods on hand at the end of the game is the winner.

All of this is achieved through a worker placement system. There are a series of action spots available -- just one spot for each type of action. You can raise the value of a good, manipulate ship sections (within one ship, or from ship-to-ship), choose which ship will gain its stern this round, or bet points on which player you think will control a ship when it departs. Each of these actions is arrayed in an order that also determines worker placement order for the next round. More valuable actions will leave you placing late next round.

I had a lot of problems with this game... and found more the more I thought about it. My experience playing it was a sensation of uncontrollable chaos. I played a 4-player game, which gives everyone only two actions each round (of 11 available, one of which is only to pick first next round). Your opponents were out-actioning you 3-to-1, and it seemed impossible to me to engineer any situation that could help yourself that wouldn't be completely undone by everyone else. It was a game of screw your neighbor; the proudest moments of the game were when you did something that made an opponent's planned action worthless. As a 2-player game (or possibly even a 3-player game), the chaos might be manageable; with 4 players, all you could do was ensure that one player in particular would lose. You couldn't plan your own victory.

Shortly after the game, a friend compared it to Imhotep. It seemed like a fair comparison, and instantly lowered my opinion Vikings on Board another notch. Both games are playing in a space where you can't directly set up your own scoring potential at the same time you can actually cause scoring to happen. But Imhotep didn't have me feeling helpless as this game did. It feels to me like you get more opportunity to act in Imhotep, an easier visualization of how an opponents' choice could change things, and more of an opportunity to "get in on a little of everything" so as not to get shut out of anything.

Later still, I got to thinking about this game's theme, and my opinion dropped further still. I'm usually not one to care deeply about the theme of a game (sure, we're farmers/developers/whatever), but this is a case where the theme feels comically mismatched to the gameplay. The conventional image of Vikings is one of violence: pillaging and conquest. This is a game about loading ships on a dock and trying to control them when they leave port -- it's a game about colonial commerce, political intrigue, or some such. Vikings, it most certainly is not.

...except in one way, ultimately the one great element of the game. It has fantastic components, made of thick punch board pieces that assemble into hefty, fancy looking ship segments complete with dragon heads on the bow. You also get heavy duty coaster-like discs for holding your goods as you accumulate them throughout the game. The game looks great.

I'd consider trying Vikings on Board again just one-on-one. But considering how rarely I play 2-player games, that's tantamount to admitting I'll never play it again. Which would suit me fine. I give the game a D+.

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been..."

For several years now, the Academy has nominated more than just five Best Picture contenders at each year's Oscars. But even in an expanded category, there will always be movies that wind up being thought of as the "almost made it"s. According to some critics, one of those from last year was Trumbo.

Trumbo is a film about the infamous 1950s "black list" of writers banned from working in Hollywood for their perceived communist sympathies. It centers in particular on Dalton Trumbo, portraying major events from his life throughout that decade: going to prison for contempt of Congress, finding a way to continue writing in secret, and fighting to end the political discrimination against him and his peers.

The film does a good job of taking history that could be made light of ("poor Hollywood writer couldn't win an Oscar with his name on it") and painting a broader picture for the audience ("actually, family man struggled to keep money coming in"). There's a vital, topical message here, as America never seems to tire of demonizing people with unpopular politics(/religious affiliations/general "otherness").

That said, while the film is solidly made, it does at times feel like it's ticking all the expected biopic boxes in rather workmanlike fashion. You can definitely recognize a few liberties taken with the story to fit the Hollywood script mold, and the emotions stirred sometimes feel manufactured. The facts themselves here are sometimes more powerful than this telling of them... at least on paper.

But elevating that script are several excellent performances. Bryan Cranston stars as Trumbo, and received an Oscar nomination for his work. I appreciate the naturalness of the performance; he delivers the chest-thumping message moments without it feeling like he's reaching out to the Academy voters with an open hand. (Though maybe if he had, he could have won?) There's also wry, thoughtful work here from Diane Lane, Louis C.K., and Alan Tudyk.

Then there are the actors clearly enjoying themselves. Popping up in smaller (but fun) roles are John Goodman, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Root, and Roger Bart. Doing great celebrity impressions are David James Elliott as John Wayne and Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas. And Helen Mirren throws herself completely into playing one of the heels of the piece.

I can see how this was an "almost miss" for Best Picture, because even though I enjoyed it, I'd grade it about a B+. Still, that's plenty good enough for me to recommend it if you have any interest in the history, or simply in watching a great cast do its thing.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Whose Fault?

On a night when I was especially tired and in no mood for mentally taxing entertainment, I decided to watch last year's disaster film, San Andreas. Starring Dwayne Johnson (and, incongruously, Paul Giamatti -- though the two are never on screen together), this is straightforward destruct-otainment.

I'd like to think my expectations were pretty well calibrated going in. I knew the narrative was going to be implausible and threadbare. (It was.) I knew the dialogue would be hokey and terrible. (It was.) I knew they'd fall out of the figurative tree, hitting every cliche branch on the way down. (They did.) So I don't think I'm going to spend time detailing the ways in which the movie disappointed on all those counts.

Where I do think the movie deserves criticism is in failing to do the things it should have done well. The visual effects, by and large, are surprisingly terrible. Buildings don't fall convincingly, floods don't rage believably, and actors don't look like they're actually in the space of their surroundings. This is the meat-and-potatoes of this kind of film, and it all looks much cheaper than it surely cost to produce. It's also cut in a confusing manner, often making it hard to follow what's going on and who it's happening to.

It didn't have to be this way, as evidenced by the handful of moments in this very film that were filmed practically. Vehicles shake on gimbals, tossing their occupants about in harrowing ways. An extended underwater sequence in the climax is legitimately impressive. And of course, there's the biggest practical effect of all: actors who are really going for it. It's not Shakespeare, but there is a skill to selling this stuff. Dwayne Johnson, Paul Giamatti, Carlo Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, and Art Parkinson ply it well enough.

Still, the movie ultimate falls in a valley somewhere between "actually good" and "so bad it's good." There's little inspiration behind the wanton destruction here; it's exactly what you'd expect, and maybe even a bit less. With better options even in the "mindless disaster" subgenre, I can only give San Andreas a D.