Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lights, Camera, Tension

Star Trek Beyond was not the only new movie this weekend that I got to check out. I also saw the new horror film Lights Out. It marks the feature film debut for David Sandberg, though he has made a number of shorts -- the first of which was the inspiration for this very movie (and which can be watched on YouTube).

Lights Out is a tight 80 minute movie with a simple premise. There's a monster terrorizing a young boy and the adult half-sister he turns to for help. The creature is powerless in direct light, but at night, when the lights go out, it's a terrifying specter with murderous intent.

If you watch the original short film, you might be hard-pressed to imagine how even 80 minutes could be wrung out of such a straightforward idea. But that's where this new version scores some points with me. Screen writer Eric Heisserer has crafted a character-driven story with a solid metaphor: mental illness can destroy a family. This full-length Lights Out unfolds in the context of a woman who escaped her disturbed mother, and who must now return to rescue her half-brother from the same situation. The story is worthwhile and interesting on its own, apart from the supernatural horror.

But then the set pieces work well too. The movie manages to explore all manner of situations in which lights suddenly come and go: basic switches, motion-activated sensors, flashing neon signs, hand-crank operated emergency flashlights, and many more. The monster occasionally displays an unfair ability to counter attempts to stop it with light, but the overall give and take of "now you see it, now you don't" never stops being intensely creepy. Nor does the movie need gore to evoke a visceral response; this is about classic, suspense driven chills.

The film also benefits from acting more solid than your run of the mill horror film. Most of the performers aren't easily recognized from other work, but Teresa Palmer plays a convincing psychologically damaged protagonist, Alexander DiPersia is believable as her determined boyfriend, and young Gabriel Bateman is exactly what you're looking for in a horror film from a child actor. Genre actor Billy Burke (who has appeared in everything from Twilight to the short-lived TV series Revolution) has fun in an extended prologue that also features the actress from the original Lights Out short, Lotta Losten. And Maria Bello handles the role of the mentally ill mother with a wise restraint that makes the character familiar and sympathetic.

In short, there's more going on here than in the average horror film. And all the jumps and spookiness you'd expect too, of course. I'd give Lights Out a B. Fans of tense scares will want to check it out.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Partly Cloudy

In the recently released board game Sea of Clouds, each player is the captain of a pirate ship, sailing from island to island is search of relics, rum, and new crew. I had a chance to try the game recently, and had a mixed reaction at best.

The game unfolds over a prescribed number of rounds. About one-third of the way through (and again, at the two-thirds mark, and at the end), you clash 7 Wonders style with the players on your immediate left and right. Each of the crew cards you've acquired adds to your battle strength; if you defeat a neighbor, each of those same crew cards provides its own reward for victory. You also have to keep an eye on end-game scoring, which comes primarily from two sources: gathering relics (an open set collection mechanic) and hording rum (a hidden information collection mechanic).

How you acquire your crew, relics, rum, and other cards is where the game is hoping to hook you. Three face down cards start off in three numbered locations. When it's your turn, you look at card #1. If you want it, you take it (and refill the slot with a card from the deck). If you don't want it, you add a new face down card to it (without looking), then proceed to look at Card #2 and repeat the process. If nothing in slots 1, 2, or 3 suit your tastes, you get the top card of the deck -- and because the card backs of each card type are distinct, that's not necessarily a total shot in the dark.

One player's trash is another player's treasure. When your turn comes, each rejection from an opponent has sweetened the pot. There may be two cards now in slot #1... and if you reject them, it will gain a third for the next player to consider. Each slot can hold three cards before the bribes start coming in the form of money -- 1 gold piece added to the three cards with each rejection.

It's an interesting "draft" mechanic, but I'm unsure how well the card set itself actually supports that mechanic. It feels as though a lot of the cards in the deck are negative. There are loads of hot potatoes you don't want to be stuck with, and all of the relics you collect actually start with a negative point value -- you have to get sets of them going before they flip around and become worth something. Avoiding a bad outcome doesn't strike me as nearly as compelling a decision as choosing between two good outcomes. And taking a bullet to stop the plans of an opponent is more palatable when it's simply "not as good for you"; here you have to put yourself in the hole relative to all players just to slow down the perceived leader.

The theme is also a bit hit-and-miss in this game. And while that's not normally a super-important consideration for me, I thought it significant enough to mention here. The cards are certainly filled with images of enough parrots, rum, treasures, and scurvy dogs to convey "pirate." But it feels like a thin and sometimes unfitting veneer on the game's mechanics at large. And worth noting, I only found out in preparing this review that the game is called Sea of Clouds because you're supposed to be in flying pirate ships; nothing overt in the game's visuals actually conveyed that element. (Even the front of the box is pretty subtle.)

The game's drafting mechanic is intriguing, but not by enough. Other games feel close to it, from Puerto Rico's "bribe the untaken jobs" system, or any game where opponents draft cards from your rejects (Notre Dame comes to mind, though there are a great many). So as a whole, Sea of Clouds just doesn't stand out as something I'd be eager to try again. I give the game a C+.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Beyond Reproach?

It's "lucky thirteen" for Star Trek movies this weekend as Star Trek Beyond, the third film of the rebooted franchise, warps into theaters. I went in hoping that I'd modulated my expectations correctly; man did that first trailer look terrible, but I certainly didn't want to hate it.

For the most part, the movie is successful. Bringing in Justin Lin, director of four Fast and Furious movies, did not suddenly wrench Star Trek in a wildly inappropriate direction. It simply meant that the you got some rock solid action sequences that were well executed and fun to watch. And the script, by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, did a good job making the action flow organically, not too tacked on just to jolt the audience.

This film also does a great job of taking its substantial budget and showing it all on the screen. There are some truly spectacular visuals, from epic space battles to the most plausibly alien planet I think the Star Trek franchise has probably ever had. It's a visual treat.


The "core three" characters -- Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- are in all in top form. They get their hero moments, and their personalities are all dialed in perfectly. (This is something the reboots have always shined at, the sense that the movies are doing right by the classic characters.) In particular, the banter between Spock and McCoy this time out is a real pleasure to watch, and goes deeper at times than just good laughs.

As you'd expect in a script written by Simon Pegg, Scotty gets a good role this time out too. He has more to do, including plenty of interaction with the movie's best new character, a badass alien survivalist named Jaylah (performed solidly by guest star Sofia Boutella). Another place you feel the contribution of Pegg is in the movie's sillier moments. This one feels lighter overall than probably any Trek movie since number 4, The Voyage Home (the whale movie). And in most cases, that lightness works.

But there are a few missteps. There are two or three major moments in the plot that are direct re-treads of things we've seen in earlier Star Trek films -- and not even just from the earlier films, but sometimes from the rebooted installments. The big Act One Moment, in particular, has been seen twice before in Trek movies, an apparently go-to method for stirring the audience's feelings. Because of that "been there, done that" feeling, combined with the simple fact that we haven't spent the time with this incarnation of Trek that we did with the original crew or The Next Generation, it just doesn't hit you anywhere near as hard as the movie seems to think it will.

And fun though it is, the movie has a pretty jarring optics problem in the second act. Keeping seven "main characters" (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov) all engaged in one two-hour story isn't an easy thing to do, so it's expected that some characters are going to sit on the sidelines to some extent. (I mean, did any of the Next Generation movies ever do anything interesting with Beverly Crusher?) But here, two of the characters are taken out of the action for at least half the film in a particularly marginalizing way. And which two characters is it? You'd better believe it's not the five straight white men. Uhura and Sulu -- not only the two racial minorities, but the woman and the gay man -- have to sit out the majority of this movie. It helps the overall picture a bit to have the aforementioned Jaylah in the mix, and that the villain Krall is played with relish by Idris Elba (albeit unrecognizable beneath some cool makeup). But really... I have to wag my finger at everyone on this.

(Side note: I didn't think it a spoiler to comment that Sulu is revealed as gay in this movie, as the fact has been widely reported in the last few weeks -- along with George Takei's reaction to it. I haven't posted about it myself, as I wanted to wait to see how it was handled in context. I'll probably have a separate post on that coming next week.)

Star Trek Beyond is a definite improvement over Star Trek Into Darkness. They took on a new story this time, thank goodness, and it was fun and entertaining. Still, this falls well short of the first reboot film. I'd put it near the back of the pack of "good Trek films," though well ahead of the pack of "bad Trek films." I'd call it a B... perhaps a B+ on a more charitable day.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

An Attack on the Defenders

The last time I blogged about fantasy author Terry Brooks, it was to decry the abysmal television adaptation of his writing, The Shannara Chronicles. I found the show to be a hackneyed, teenaged version of one of his greatest books, The Elfstones of Shannara.

Now I've read his latest book, The Sorcerer's Daughter (the final book of three in The Defenders of Shannara set), and I find that Brooks' writing seems to have sunk almost to the level of that dreadful show. Was his writing always this way, and my younger self -- less well read, closer in age to the characters -- didn't see it? (I would have sworn not that; I just re-read Elfstones a few years back and still appreciated it.)

The Sorcerer's Daughter follows two distinct plot threads. In one, a group of Druids shepherded by Paxon Leah is fleeing from a peace conference that was attacked by a magical creature -- they themselves having been framed for the attack. In the other, Paxon's wife Leofur is trying to track his sister, who has been abducted for reasons unknown. Both situations have likely been caused by the Druids' nemesis, the evil mage (and Leofur's father) Arcannen.

It's been decades since Terry Brooks last published a "doorstop fantasy novel," but even as his page counts have been dwindling, he'd still mostly been telling "epic" tales of significant sweep and scope. The Defenders of Shannara series has been a definite push away from that, and The Sorcerer's Daughter feels like the culmination of this. It feels anything but epic, in the worst of ways. The stakes are extremely personal, and the characters are so shallow as to make that a real problem.

Much of what's going on here is recycled from earlier Brooks novels, even from within this very trilogy. This is the second time the same character has been abducted, the second time the evil sorcerer has used the same trick to fool the heroes. And the prose itself is repetitious too; the two main characters have the same internal monologue with themselves in chapter after chapter (sometimes even within the same chapter) without actually evolving until it's time for the book to end.

Brooks does try a couple of new things for which I should give credit. Where his past books have been using a similarly shaped romantic subplot, this novel actually depicts a married couple that may be on the way to divorce. The problem is, the major complication in this relationship is a potential new romance that plays out just like all the others, so it ultimately doesn't matter much that there's a pre-existing marriage here at all. Secondly, Brooks explicitly includes LGBT characters in his fiction for the first time, in the form of two Druid characters who are themselves a lesbian couple. Unfortunately, the personalities of both are rather underdeveloped (though one, at least, for reasons that make sense in light of the plot). Really, all the other characters in the Paxon Leah half of the plot are underdeveloped, so this is not a mark against Brooks' handling of a gay character... though it is a mark against his interest in supporting players beyond their immediate service to the narrative.

Though The Sorcerer's Daughter was quite short for the average fantasy novel, I found it a slog -- likely the worst of Terry Brooks' many books. I give it a D.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

TNG Flashback: Generations

Star Trek: Generations marked a "handing over of the baton" in the Star Trek feature film franchise, the first starring the cast of The Next Generation.

In a prologue, Captain Kirk is presumed dead after the Enterprise-B rescues a ship from an interstellar energy ribbon called the Nexus. 78 years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D comes into conflict with Dr. Soran, one of the survivors of that event. With the help of the Duras sisters, Soran is destroying stars to alter the course of the Nexus so he can get back inside. Waiting inside is a timeless utopia where all things are possible... and Captain Kirk, the one man who can help stop Soran.

Paramount gave the order to begin developing a Next Generation Star Trek film while the series was still in its sixth season. Former Next Gen staff writer Maurice Hurley was contracted to develop one story, while current staff writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga were told to create another; the stronger script would become the movie. (Executive producer and Deep Space Nine showrunner Michael Piller declined the chance to develop his own script, objecting to the competition.) Hurley's version reportedly used Kirk only as a holodeck character, which I imagine gave Moore and Braga's use of "the real thing" the inside track.

In a commentary track for the movie done by Moore and Braga, the duo recalls that several mandatory plot elements were handed to them. The original Star Trek cast would appear in the opening, while Kirk alone would figure in the finale. There had to be a Khan-like villain. But also Klingons (because people love Klingons). There had to be a humorous subplot involving Data. If these recollections are accurate, it's pretty easy to understand the form of the resulting movie, and the reason for most of its flaws.

Let's look at the mandates one by one. First, the original cast had to appear. Moore and Braga conceived of the Enterprise-B prologue to address this, and on paper I think it was a solid idea -- all seven of the original characters were written into the script. But there were two problems in executing that vision: with only 10-15 minutes for the entire sequence, some of the characters got only a couple of lines; moreover, Star Trek VI had already served as a quite effective sendoff for the original crew.

Leonard Nimoy was thus already reluctant when the production approached him -- not only to return as Spock, but as the first choice for the director's chair. Furthermore, after enjoying a lot of creative control on his previous Star Trek directorial efforts (III and IV), he wanted script revisions. In particular, he felt "there was no Spock function in the script," that the lines "attributed to Spock [...] had nothing to do with Spock." DeForest Kelley also passed on returning as McCoy. Just like that, the dream of reuniting the crew, or even just the classic Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio, died.

When you watch the Enterprise-B prologue, you can see moments that were clearly intended for other characters. Chekov pressing reporters into service as nurses is pure McCoy, and the pride he takes in introducing helmsman Demora Sulu would surely have felt better coming from her father. Scotty makes some very Spock-like leaps in logic, while ribbing Kirk at times in a very McCoy-like manner. Despite clear hints of "what might have been," a lot of the prologue does work. The actors we did get deliver solid moments, from the way William Shatner's hand lingers longingly on the captain's chair, to Walter Koenig's delivery of "I was never that young," to one of James Doohan's best ever moments as Scotty -- the hollowed out "aye" he gives when he realizes that Kirk is dead.

The Enterprise-B crew is a who's who of faces from genre television (and often, past Star Trek in particular): there's Tim Russ (just months before being cast as Tuvok on Voyager), Glenn Morshower (known for 24), Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Jenette Goldstein (most of James' Cameron's movies, including the role Vasquez in Aliens), and Thomas Kopache (numerous Trek roles, including Kira's father on Deep Space Nine). Sure, Captain Harriman is spineless and incapable, and Shatner gets a bit hammy squirming in his chair, but the sequence as a whole is filled with good action and visuals.

The next mandate, that Kirk return for the finale, is less successful. Really, the third act of the film in general is flawed, largely due to the plot device of the Nexus. Moore and Braga say they arrived at it because they didn't want to have "old Kirk" in their movie, but neither did they want to use straight-up time travel. They envisioned the Nexus as a mingling of past, present, and future, and rightly admit that the film doesn't do the best job of conveying that. In my view, the problem isn't just that the Nexus is a confusing idea, it's that what we do see is just plain silly. There's Picard's Dickensian family (with an unfamiliar wife instead of Vash, Jenice Manheim, or any of the TV series characters that might have resonated). There's the notion that Kirk's ultimate dream is to chop wood for eternity (and not to remain forever in command of a starship). Or the laughable fact that both men are wearing their Starfleet uniforms in their fantasies.

Most problematic is the notion that you can leave the Nexus simply by willing it, and go to any time and place you want. First of all, if what you want is to leave the Nexus and save the day, how do you know you're really doing that and not just being conned by another Nexus fantasy? Second, if you do leave the Nexus and anything goes wrong with your plan, why not just throw up your hands, get sucked back into the Nexus, then leave again to have another go at it? And thirdly, why exit the Nexus at a moment you're in dire peril, as opposed to any of countless earlier and opportune moments? (This last flaw, Moore and Braga acknowledge in their commentary. They half-heartedly defend themselves by saying that most time travel stories -- "even Terminator" -- have this problem, and that hopefully you just get caught up enough in the story not to let it bother you.)

But even bigger than the plot holes is the problem that Kirk's return really doesn't amount to much. His death feels perfunctory, and totally avoidable if they'd gone in with anything like a plan. (And that's even after reshoots; originally, Soran simply shot Kirk in the back.) It feels like Picard saves the day, while Kirk merely (arguably) saves Picard. Which is maybe what you want for a Next Generation movie, but certainly isn't great for the "last ride of James T. Kirk." Even his last line feels off. William Shatner was reportedly insistent about the final "oh my" (where the writers preferred "it was fun"), and it's hard to know what to make of the moment. Is Kirk seeing a glimpse of hell just a split second before he heads there? Is he having an Arrested Development-esque "I've made a huge mistake" moment? He's not going out swinging, as Captain Kirk should, that's for sure.

As for the mandate for a Khan-like villain? If you realize that what made Khan Khan is his personal vendetta against Kirk, then it's clear Soran falls short on that mark. His conflict with our heroes is completely beside the point to him, and his plot makes no sense. He's blowing up stars to reach the Nexus, claiming no ship can take him there. But how did Guinan and Kirk -- and Soran himself (the first time) all reach the Nexus? From a ship! But at least Malcolm McDowell does make the character fun and urbane villain, quoting literature and shrugging off the annihilation of billions while effectively stealing the spotlight from the mandated Klingons. Lursa and B'Etor succeed in destroying the Enterprise, which should make them great villains. But they're comic relief at best, second fiddles at worst. B'Etor's name is never even spoken aloud in the film.

How about that Data subplot? Well, it does generate some laughs... though getting there seems so glib. "Oh, we didn't mention that the emotion chip was mysteriously repaired at some point, and that Data could have just put it in at any time?" It feels like exactly what it is: something the writers chose to do only because it was the movie, to help this feel more like a movie than a regular episode. But Brent Spiner really sells it, from the hilarious Ten Forward drinking scene to the fist-pumping bridge celebration to the actual use of the word "shit" on Star Trek. He even makes the final discovery of Spot in the Enterprise wreckage a meaningful moment -- though he reportedly begged Moore and Braga to do something else, saying: "Does he have to find the cat? Can't he find, like, Geordi or something?"

And while Spiner is the standout in this film, you really can't fault any of the performances. (Not even Shatner, who secured a Razzie nomination for this film.) A lot of moments that could be goofy instead play perfectly straight. The intended jokes work, and there are several good scenes. Still, despite the cast's efforts, I feel like Generations doesn't quite focus on what it's trying to be about. There's the sense that it was supposed to be about "mortality," but most of the moments that touch on this theme are half-baked or muddled, swallowed up by the movie's need to check all the prescribed boxes. Soran's quest to return to the Nexus seems driven not out of fear of death, but out of desire to achieve nirvana. Kirk doesn't pine for his youth as such; he simply wants to keep adventuring, to be back in command of a starship again. Picard tells Troi that he regrets not having his own family, but his reaction to the death of his brother and nephew seems much more about grief than regret (and when the Nexus actually gives him that family, he gives it up quite easily).

But if the theme meanders a bit, I'd say at least the movie stays consistently feeling like a "movie," as opposed to an episode of the TV series. The scope of the problem is inflated, with a villain destroying entire stars. The Enterprise is destroyed! Captain Kirk dies! There's lots more filming on location: at sea for Worf's holodeck promotion, in beautiful mountains for Kirk's Nexus "heaven," and in the desert for the finale. Visual effects take a big jump up, particularly in the saucer crash sequence (though a few shots, such as the exploding Klingon ship, are stolen from earlier Star Trek movies). It's definitely a "big screen adventure."

This is already longer than my typical Star Trek reviews, so let me start wrapping things up with "other observations":
  • The lighting in this movie drives me absolutely nuts. Everyone was eager to do something more than the TV show, on its tight timetables, could achieve. But dammit, we know what the Enterprise looks like, and it's not this. Every scene is drenched in moody shadows, to a point where you can't even see some of the characters when they speak. It feels like it's supposed to be capital-I Important, but it's capital-D Distracting.
  • Dennis McCarthy scores the movie, continuing in his role as composer from the series. His music here is still a bit too steeped for my tastes in the "musical wallpaper" ethos sanctioned by producer Rick Berman. But he does cut loose here and there, with a new heroic anthem, and a poignant choir used to symbolize the Nexus.
  • Marina Sirtis often poked fun at the writers during convention appearances: after letting both a blind man (Geordi) and a child (Wesley) drive the ship, the first chance she gets to do it, she crashes it.
Generations doesn't hang together like the great episodes of Star Trek, but it is -- despite its flaws -- more coherent than many action movies. I'd grade it a B overall.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dice Town

Although it was first released several years ago, it was only recently that I got a chance to play the game Machi Koro. It's a dice-driven city building game that became a "crossover hit," one of those gateway games simple enough to help you transition your Monopoly playing friends into the wide world of Euro board games.

Each player begins the game with six building cards in front of them: two standard buildings (face-up) and four mega-buildings (face down and unbuilt). In the center of the play area, stacks of building cards are arranged, which players can construct throughout the game. Each building has a cost in coins to add it to your own growing town, and also has a number (from 1 to 12) that triggers its game text and provides you income. On your turn, roll one or two dice; the total of your roll then triggers your corresponding buildings to do their thing.

One of the game's small twists is that not all your dice rolls will help you and only you. Some buildings trigger each time any player rolls the corresponding number. Others trigger when an opponent rolls a particular number, paying you and penalizing them. The card designs do take the math into account to some extent, with both the building costs and effects scaled relative to the likelihood of a particular number being rolled. But you shouldn't let yourself get too distracted in creating a grand infrastructure that touches every number on the dice. To win the game, you must build each of the four mega-buildings in front of you. And the order in which you do it can matter, as each mega-building provides some kind of bonus to your efforts.

Machi Koro feels to me like a gateway game particularly good for people who like Sorry or Aggravation. The idea that "certain numbers work differently" with be familiar to those players, and the overall feeling of all these games is one of chaos over which you can exert just a tiny measure of control. In the case of Machi Koro, I think that measure is too tiny for my tastes. Working your way up to the "two dice" buildings (the buildings that trigger on rolls of 7 through 12) takes time, and that's where I felt like I wanted to be to master the dice rolls (turning the possible results from a statistical flat line into a bell curve). In fact, it wasn't until the last few turns of the game that any of the players got to that point at all, and you can find stories of many people winning without ever getting there.

I did get to pursue my "dice de-ficklement" strategy in the game I played. I even won, actually. Yet the whole experience still felt like random chaos to me. With the game perhaps 3/4s of the way to completion, I was in last place and felt hopelessly out of the contention. But I had struggled my way to a few buildings that triggered on 7s and 8s... and then that's exactly what I rolled, four turns in a row, to abruptly win the game. The result was oddly unsatisfying; I'd done exactly what I set out to do, but it still felt like blind luck had let me snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I'm in no particular hurry to play the game again.

And yet... Machi Koro uses a lot of mechanics that casual gamers will find familiar, or will tune to quickly. It takes only 30 minutes to play. I can absolutely imagine the player who will love it... and then hopefully go on to love more advanced Euro games. So the game definitely has a place. Just not in my collection. I give Machi Koro a C+. But if you're looking to make new gamers, you may want to give it a try.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Seeing Green

The movie Green Room didn't linger long in theaters during its run a few months back, perhaps in part because people like me -- who knew of it and wanted to see it -- didn't go. But it has now arrived on Blu-ray, and I'm very glad I went back to catch up.

Green Room follows a young punk band traveling in their beat up van. Desperate for cash, they take a gig playing at a neo-Nazi bar in a secluded Oregon location. When they see something they shouldn't, they wind up barricaded in the bar's green room, cowering in fear at what the bar's ruthless owner might to do them.

I'd heard that Green Room was a taut and suspenseful thriller -- and it most certainly is. But it also drinks some from the "slasher horror" well, toggling back and forth to capture the best of both sub-genres. One moment, the movie is loaded with the tension of wondering how the characters will get out of their impossible situation. The next moment is one of shock and revulsion as something horrific transpires. It's a perfectly arrayed path of wind-up and release, peaks and valleys -- and always building in intensity.

Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier clearly takes the often-maligned genre very seriously. In so doing, he's able to attract a great cast willing to take it seriously too. Alia Shawkat completes a transition from comedy (Arrested Development) to comedy-horror (The Final Girls) to just straight horror. Even more intense is Imogen Poots, who believably moves from "checked out" to "amped up" in the tight turns the script demands of her character. There are also several talented unknowns and lesser-knowns.

Anton Yelchin is the top-billed actor, and gives a marvelous performance (as always, regardless of the quality of the movie around him). At first, it's hard not to think of the young actor's recent and untimely death, but you're quickly caught up in the movie itself. His character has the widest range to cover by any actor's measure -- action, obstacle, or emotion -- and there's never a false moment.

The main villain of the piece, the bar's neo-Nazi owner, is played by Patrick Stewart. There's something subversive in casting "Captain Picard" (who you never once think of while watching the movie) as another commanding leader, this one so cold and dangerous. The performance is all the more chilling for its restraint; there's rarely so much as a raised voice as this ringleader tosses off racial slurs and casually plots ghastly crimes. You simultaneously want to lean in to hear him and recoil backward at everything he is.

I think my hopes for this movie were somewhat modest, and it soared well beyond them. I give Green Room an A-. It's dark and intense (and too violent for some), but I'd definitely recommend it.