Friday, December 08, 2017

You Raise? I Fold.

At the kernel of the game Raise Your Goblets is a really fun idea: let's play out the old "poisoned drinks" game with friends.

Each player has a "drinking goblet" in front of them, and a screen behind which a fixed number of glass beads begins, marking "poison," "antidote," or "wine." On each player's turn, they have an array of actions available. They can add a bead to any goblet without anyone seeing it. They can rotate all the goblets in play clockwise or counter-clockwise one position. They can swap the goblet in front of them for one in front of any other player. Or they can look inside their own goblet to learn its contents.

Once a player has played all the "wine" tokens from behind their screen, they gain another option for their turn: they may propose a toast. Every player gets one final action (including them), and then everyone "drinks" from the goblet before them. If they end up with at least an equal amount of antidote and poison, they're fine. More poison, however, and well... you know. Each round, you get a point for surviving, a point for assassinating the player you're "targeting" (as selected by a random card draw at the beginning of the round), and a bonus point if you achieve both goals.

It's a great idea for a game. In practice, though, it simply isn't very fun to play. The problem is that chaos reigns supreme -- or, at least, it does when you play with as many players as the game claims to accommodate. The game takes up to 6 (and up to 12, if you play with supplemental "wine taster" rules we did not have to use). We played with the full 6, and it stripped all sense of control from the proceedings. With just two actions on your turn, and a whopping 10 opposing actions in between, it was simply impossible to know what was going on in any goblet. You'd peek when you could, but then too many beads would drop in too many places between, and uncertainty would encroach.

In the end, the person who actually called the toast each round had the supreme advantage. You'd get the final action. And if you could track just one goblet and be reasonably certain of its contents, you'd just swap that one to be in front of you at the end of the round. Everybody else, leave to random chance. Even then, there was really no telling who would be safe -- often yourself included. The game felt like an elaborate random number generator.

I'd consider trying the game once more with a more manageable number -- three or perhaps four. But it seems like there's a razor thin edge here, between it being too easy to have information and too impossible. And that advantage of taking the last action is always going to be there, in any case. I don't have high hopes that a different player count would yield more satisfying results.

It's a great concept, but in a way that perhaps makes the game deserving of even lower marks, for bungling the potential so thoroughly. I'd give Raise Your Goblets a D. Even under the umbrella of "chaotic group games," there are far better choices.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

DS9 Flashback: The Passenger

Many Star Trek fans (including me) think that "The Inner Light" was the best episode of The Next Generation. So on paper, having the writer behind that story, Morgan Gendel, contribute an idea for Deep Space Nine seems very exciting. Unfortunately, that episode turned out to be "The Passenger."

Bashir and Kira come to the rescue of an alien ship in distress, but fail to save the life of a criminal on board, Rao Vantika. That's how they see it, at least. Vantika's escort/hunter/jailer, Ty Kajada, insists that Vantika has somehow faked his own death -- a notion that begins to look plausible when things start going wrong aboard Deep Space Nine. With some digging, Dax arrives at an explanation: Vantika may have found a way to transfer his consciousness into another living being, creating a Jekyll/Hyde duality in someone who doesn't even know it.

Gendel's original pitch for this episode was to tell the story of a cop who didn't know she was chasing herself -- Vantika's mind would be hiding in Kajada's body. Bashir would have become romantically involved with Kajada, and would then be forced to decide how much he could trust her in race against time to find a bomb planted on the station by Vantika. As a freelancer, Gendel admitted he was open to any feedback given so long as he sold his pitch; he recalls a bunch of back and forth meetings where the writing staff tweaked his story, waffled on whether they wanted a villain in the mold of Hannibal Lecter or not, and more.

It feels like the least interesting of all story options was the one chosen. Even if Gendel's initial pitch sounds too centered on the guest star, turning Bashir into a guest star by having him be Vantika's host doesn't seem like the best solution. No consideration is ever given to the idea that Kira -- who was also there trying to rescue Vantika at the beginning of the episode -- could also be his host. Instead, the closest the episode comes to being a true whodunit is in offering up previously unknown security officer Primmin as a red herring who might be in league with Vantika. (In actuality, his subplot was reportedly crafted to cover for the absence of O'Brien for a second straight episode, as Colm Meaney was off shooting a movie.)

The Primmin B-plot actually works better than the Vantika A-plot. It takes the series' inherent culture clash, Federation values vs. the "wild west" of a Bajoran station, and makes it an explicit conflict between Odo and Primmin. There are some great moments here, many using Sisko as the pivot between them. Sisko talks Odo out of a hot-headed decision to quit, and slaps down Primmin by reminding him the Federation are only invited guests here. ("If you want my opinion--" "Actually, I don't." Snap!)

But just about everything in the episode involving Bashir is bad. It starts right in the cold open, with him bragging more than ever before about his medical skills (which Kira takes in surprising stride, by her standards). And while Bashir goes on to be not nearly as pervy or egotistical as usual through the rest of the episode, the sad fact is that it might not be him in the rest of the episode. The episode lays out that the Vantika consciousness is dormant while Bashir is "awake," and vice versa, but there are some moments here and there where Bashir effectively blocks Ty Kajada and her investigation in such a way that you have to believe it's Vantika pretending to be Bashir. That means at this point in the life of the show, a horrifying killer is a more likeable Bashir than Bashir. Yikes.

And speaking of pretending, actor Alexander Siddig makes some unfortunate choices in his portrayal of the villainous Vantika. He plays really broad, and reportedly used a strange, "Bela Lugosi-like" voice on set, which was judged to be so distracting in post-production that they had him redub over all his lines. The result is a bizarre.... almost... Kirk-like... pattern... of... slow... speech that can't possibly be any less grating than what they replaced. (But it's not the worst acting in the final act. When Vantika and his goons board the alien ship, everybody there freezes and waits woodenly to get shot, each performing their cheap fall stunt in turn.)

The mystery doesn't even work. Besides having a lack of suspects for who Vantika could be, the episode's editing actually gives the game away. In the scene where a "mysterious whispering figure" accosts Quark, the voice totally just sounds like Bashir whispering. And when the figure throws Quark, the camera pans unfortunately and actually shows Bashir on screen, for enough frames that you don't even have to pause to recognize him! (This error was much to the disappointment of producer Michael Piller, though there was apparently no way to edit around it.)

Other observations:
  • Even Quark is portrayed to respect boundaries more than Bashir in this episode. Quark and Odo have an extended conversation about wanting something (ahem, Dax), but knowing you can't have it. Bashir hasn't learned the second part of that, as shown when he stalked Dax last episode.
  • Staff writer Ira Steven Behr spoke negatively of this episode in interviews. He felt this was another story that didn't distinguish itself from what could be done on The Next Generation, noting this could have easily been about Geordi. I find it interesting that his mind went from Bashir, the most romantically "problematic" DS9 character, to Geordi, who the writers saddled with similar romantic hangups.
  • While it makes perfect sense that you'd be able to lock the door of Odo's security office, I had a brief mental flash of the creepy stories about Matt Lauer in the moment where Odo had to push a button to let Ty Kajada out of his office.
  • I love that Sisko doesn't take chances and just stuns Bashir/Vantika at the end of the episode. It would have been even more potent if he hadn't waited for "Bashir" to claim "wait, it's me!"
  • There is some crazy technology on display here, even for Star Trek. First, we have the transporter being used as a miracle cure once again, somehow beaming Vantika's consciousness out of Bashir's brain. Then there's also the fact that since we know the Trek universe has cloning (from just a few episodes ago), that combined with this ability to transfer consciousness basically means they've invented immortality.
  • When Ty Kajada shoots the container holding Vantika's consciousness, it's a good thing she doesn't miss. She's got her weapon set to vaporize, and the container is just sitting there on a big computer console.
This episode rates around the bottom of the C- range for me, with the Odo subplot being the element that saves it from falling even lower. It's the weakest episode of Deep Space Nine yet. (Though a famously terrible one is just around the corner.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Outside: Looking In

Although the Oscar nominations haven't yet been announced (and won't be for some time yet), the race is essentially already on. A number of critics organizations have begun handing out their prizes, the Golden Globes nominations are coming next week, and movie fans are eagerly reading the tea leaves. A few movies are already rising to the top, and some of those are making their way to theaters.

One of those is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It's a new effort from writer-director Martin McDonagh, the maker of Seven Psychopaths (which I haven't seen) and In Bruges (which I have; meh). Like Seven Psychopaths, this new film is a large ensemble piece; like In Bruges, it's dramatically taking on some very dark subject matter while leavening the proceedings with a streak of wry comedy.

It's been many months since Mildred Hayes' daughter Angela was brutally raped and murdered, and she thinks the local police haven't been doing enough to find justice. To bring attention to the case, she buys ads on three local billboards, highlighting the brutality of the crime and calling out the police chief by name. She gets more than she bargained for, with not everyone in the town supporting her provocative stance -- particularly since the police chief is dealing with a rapidly advancing form of cancer.

Last year, there was another movie in the Oscar hunt (though in a distant third place) that told the story of a mourning parent unable to cope with the loss of a child. Manchester by the Sea was relentlessly bleak and doggedly one note. In some ways, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the same story without being so rigid. Mildred is trapped in grief and can't find a way out, and you get to really learn why when added context around the loss of her daughter is revealed in the middle of the movie. But this film isn't afraid of having fun along the way.

Neither is the cast. Mildred's grief has only served to sharpen her irreverent, biting wit, and the performance by Frances McDormand never gets locked into one emotional place. She's not dark all the time, though you never lose sight of the fact that her character's humor is usually gallows humor. She's not constantly at loggerheads with the police chief. He really is a sympathetic man, and he really does respect her plight. Woody Harrelson plays the role with humor and dignity of his own, and provides a great look at someone who holds their head high as they face down cancer.

There are plenty of other characters in the mix to bring variety to the story. A rage-driven man-child working in the police force is a vehicle for examining police brutality and racism -- and often in funny ways, believe it or not. The character has enough of a story that you might consider him a co-protagonist in how it unfolds, and he's played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell. Lucas Hedges plays Mildred's surviving son (and he also appeared in Manchester by the Sea, which is perhaps how I made that thematic connection). He's processing grief in his own way, with a jagged brand of teenage angst. John Hawkes plays Mildred's abusive ex-husband, Peter Dinklage plays a sad sack local, and many other recognizable faces pop up in tiny one-scene roles.

One other thing that really elevates this film in my mind above the relentless sorrow of Manchester by the Sea is that there is another message here besides "grief consumes." Layered in the background throughout, and then made explicit in the final act, is the notion that hate only engenders more of the same. It all resolves in a wonderfully ambiguous ending where you have to decide for yourself -- have characters really turned the corner on their lives and changed, or will they fall back into the same patterns they had a chance to snap out of?

I have many Oscar contenders left to see. (And we can't even really say for sure what those even are yet.) But if this season overall stands anywhere near the quality of this movie, I have a good run of movies ahead. I give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri an A-.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Orientation, Parts 1 and 2

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has begun its new season, and a new premise, with the two-part episode "Orientation." I'm trying not to read too much into ABC unceremoniously dumping the show on Friday night, the killing field of science fiction television. For years now, the thing that has kept this show on the air has been its so-called "Live+3" ratings, the number of viewers who catch up with the show within three days of its first airing. But I suppose 5 years is a good run for most shows, so I'm beginning the season-long process of preparing for this year to be the show's last.

It certainly starts in a fruitful place. Over the course of the two-parter, we learn that our heroes (minus Fitz) have been transported across both time and space, to an alien station of the far future, orbiting a dead Earth. Someone, yet to be identified, sent the agents there in the hopes they can save the day. But in the concentration camp atmosphere of the alien station, they're hard-pressed to get the revolution started.

The meta-commentary throughout the installment was perhaps the most delicious part of it. There was constant joking on the inevitability of being placed in this situation ("the only thing we haven't done"), the plots of alien/horror movies, and more. With such a dark story, the humor was all the more important, and landed well throughout.

There was also good work done in starting individual story lines for different characters. Simmons has been conscripted into the inner circle of the Kree ruler of the station, and it's already clear that the "pampered life" will have dangers of its own. Daisy has been paired with Deke, a defeated entrepreneur of the future that she'll have to whip into a hero. (She also learned, in the episode's final moments, that she is responsible for the end of the world. If true, she's got a truly incomprehensible amount of guilt to reckon with.) Coulson, Mack, and Yo-Yo are all consigned to a slavery within slavery, caught working for a "middle man" human who has them under his thumb. (Played by one of the creepiest, best "working actors" in the business, Pruitt Taylor Vince.)

There were a few misfires for me. The degree of May's injury conveniently came and went, depending on how much ass she needed to kick. I would have liked to see them play her wounded leg as truthfully as possible; it would be a nice turn for May's character to see her have to work without one of her strongest assets, her ability to beat down enemies with her bare hands. (But I also hope that ship hasn't yet sailed, depending on the time scale in which this season unfolds.)

I also was disappointed at the contrived separation of Fitz and Simmons once again. The writers hung a lantern on how the couple is, as always, cursed, but this obstacle thrown between them feels unnecessary to me. There's already the fallout of the Framework to deal with, and Jemma now being a servant of the Kree. Separating them by time travel is just one more obstacle on top of all that, and actually prevents the thoughtful exploration of the other two obstacles. Perhaps my opinion on this will shift if the story bounces back to the present and gives us an episode showcasing Fitz, but for now I'm just missing his presence of the show.

Overall, though, the episode(s) kicked off a promising arc to come. I'd give the two parts of "Orientation" a B+.

Monday, December 04, 2017

New Dimensions

The Orville has always been a loving homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation. In their most recent episode, they actually did an episode that The Next Generation should have done, but didn't. In a re-tooling between seasons one and two, TNG moved the character of Geordi LaForge from his job at helm to the role of chief engineer. It was a creative decision that definitely helped the character and the show, but came with absolutely no explanation -- how does one even make that job transfer?

The Orville, in an episode centered on LaMarr, showed us exactly that. After Commander Grayson is looking through LaMarr's personnel file and learns he's been hiding extraordinary intelligence, she pushes for him to be promoted to the recently vacated position of chief engineer, which doesn't go over well with Yaphit.

I wonder if there was always a "plan" in place to make this character move with LaMarr, or if the creative team behind The Orville went through the same discovery process as the staff of The Next Generation -- learning that the chief engineer is actually someone you'll want to feature a bunch, so you might as well have that be one of your main characters. It's not the first time The Orville has explored putting a character in charge who feels ill-equipped for the job (they did that with Kitan already). Still, the different character traits made for different stories. Kitan is ambitious and doesn't want to let anyone down. LaMarr wants to fade into the background.

LaMarr's explanation of his background and behavior was quite interesting. The sort of person who doesn't want to speak up in a meeting, doesn't want to come across as pushy, doesn't want to rock the boat, is absolutely a person you see in the real world all the time. Rarely do you see that dramatized on a science-fiction show. And there's extra resonance in giving this story to a person of color, as too often the sort of person this describes is a minority or a woman, someone choosing not to make waves for very strategic (unfortunate) reasons, to safeguard themselves in a professional environment that doesn't recognize their talents. From that standpoint, LaMarr coming out of his shell and into his own fuller potential was a real wish fulfillment story line that felt good to see.

The B story had Mercer questioning his own potential after learning that Grayson pulled strings to get him the captain's chair on the ship. Mercer's whining self-doubt didn't play so great for me, though I did appreciate how this story line was really only possible on this show, with its more "normal" humans. (You'd never see something like it on a Star Trek, of any generation.)

As for the C story that went along with it all, The Next Generation also did a "two-dimensional creatures" episode. This installment of The Orville bore very little resemblance to it, though; besides, the episode made sure to have Mercer explain to us that another source (a 19th-century sci-fi story) was more of an inspiration here. The Tron-meets-Galaga visuals of two-dimensional space seemed perhaps a bit cheesy, but better I think to risk that and show something visually striking rather than have everyone ooing and aahing at something that wasn't that unusual.

Overall, I'd give the episode a B. It was a nice study of LaMarr's character, even if the other elements weren't quite as strong.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Darkness Falls

Though I wouldn't call myself a Stephen King fan as such, I've read a fair number of his books -- enough to know that he generally doesn't "stick the landing" with good endings to his stories. That's part of what makes The Dark Tower series stand out in my mind. I thought it had a strong, memorable ending (and lots of other good elements too), and thus I regard it as my favorite of King's works.

This is why I was disappointed to hear that the recent movie adaptation was no good. Critics dumped on it for being non-sensical, fans dumped on it for straying so far from the books. Yet something made me throw it in the Netflix disc queue anyway to check out if it was as bad as everyone was saying.

At first, I didn't think so. When the short 90 minute movie ended, I thought, "well, that wasn't good, but it wasn't really as bad as everyone was saying." But by an hour later, I was thinking maybe it was. By the next day, I was questioning whether it was actually worse than everyone was saying. This movie has a hell of a half life, and not working in its favor.

The fans are closer to the mark on this one. The Dark Tower (the movie) isn't especially complicated or confusing. It's actually distilled down to the stories most formulaic elements. (Not its most essential elements; many of those were actually excised!) An evil villainous villain wants to destroy the universe, and needs to find a special kid to do it. The special kid is dreaming of the hero who will save him, and soon discovers those dreams are real. Action beats ensue.

So much is cut from the book that it's not even worth detailing. Instead, I have to ask why even bother to adapt material if the adaptation is going to be so faithless to the source? Sure, a 7-book epic was never going to fit into one film, and doing a straight up adaptation of the dull book 1 as movie 1 would not have been the right approach. Still, the movie tampers with everything from removing vital characters to actually changing the motivations of the ones who do appear. Nearly all the things that distinguished the tale get sanded off, leaving a generic fantasy adventure different only in that in partially takes place on Earth.

It's really a shame, because the core cast is pretty good. (Let's not stray beyond the core; no one else gets anything of substance to do.) Idris Elba plays gunslinger hero Roland Deschain, and does a remarkable job of layering a performance in a script that isn't very deep. He buries a long-forgotten nobility beneath a battered and world-weary exterior. He's every inch the hero you want to watch rise to the occasion, and he's thrilling when he does.

Matthew McConaughey is great as the evil Man in Black, Walter. There's a meta level to the performance, as he's quite mannered and restrained much of the time here. Yet we know that's hiding both real-life craziness and craziness that has leaked out on the screen before (ahem, The Wolf of Wall Street). You really do get the sense of a mask obscuring something awful, and when it does crack in moments, the sparks and menace are among the few compelling things about the movie.

Newcomer Tom Taylor plays young Jake Chambers, the kid at the heart of the story. The movie chooses to shift the books' perspective entirely from Roland to Jake, and only the consistency of Taylor's performance keeps me from adding that to the long list of changes that seem like a bad idea. It's pretty boilerplate "kid discovers he has powers" stuff, but the performance isn't lax or bored, it's making the best of what's there.

Three good performances aren't enough to save an otherwise paint-by-numbers snoozefest. Nor are the superficial details like gunplay sometimes substituting for magic, world-hopping back and forth to New York City, and so forth. People who aren't fans of The Dark Tower will wonder what the big deal is. Fans will just be disappointed. I give The Dark Tower a D+. Steer clear.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Questioning Podcast

Though actor Jonathan Groff's most recent work was in the Netflix series Mindhunters, he's best known for musicals -- from Hamilton and Spring Awakening on Broadway to Frozen in the movies and Glee on TV. And he's followed that thread of his career to an unexpected place: podcasts.

36 Questions is a three-part podcast from the creative forces behind Limetown. It's a sort-of stage play rendered in audio form, about a couple who have reached a major bump in their marriage: Jace has discovered that his wife "Natalie" is really Judith, and has been lying about her identity since they first met years ago. He's fled to a cabin in the woods, while she's pursued him in a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship. She wants a do-over of one of the first things they did together: taking a quiz of 36 questions that lead to love.

And, as I mentioned, it's a musical.

Written and composed by Christopher Littler and Ellen Winter (and produced by the Limetown duo Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers), 36 Questions is a cleverly constructed little piece. It's like a play in its level of intimacy, in how it focuses on just two characters in a tight and impossible situation. It also adapts to the unconventional medium of a podcast by not being limited to what could be produced on a stage. The action does move around, through a raging thunderstorm, inside a moving car, and into a crowded restaurant. Clever foley work always grounds the sense of place, making it easy to imagine watching the performance in your mind's eye -- it's just that sometimes you have to imagine sitting in a theater while other times you might imagine it on your television.

Two performers have to carry the whole enterprise essentially on their own, and do so wonderfully. I've already mentioned Jonathan Groff, the "heavy hitter" who will pull many musical fans to the podcast. The other is Jessie Shelton, a lesser-known performer who actually has more of the heavy lifting to do in the story -- her character Judith is the one desperate to save a marriage Jace has already given up on, she's the one who has been lying and must explain why, she's the one narrating her crazy plan into a cell phone recording (the framing device for the entire show). This piece wouldn't work if both performers weren't 100% dialed in, and both rise to the challenges.

In any musical, the songs have to click to make the whole thing work. They do here. Like the project itself, they're often unconventional tunes, playing with discordant notes in unusual keys, toying occasionally with dropped beats and weird rhythms, and layering the performers to provide their own harmonies. But the songs are quite memorable. It's been nearly two weeks since I finished listening to the third and final part, I only listened to the podcast once through, and yet some of the songs still pop up in my mind from time to time.

My one slight reservation about 36 Questions is that, in setting up such a difficult situation for the characters, the bar to get them out of it is quite high. I'm not entirely sure how I felt about the ending. It was unexpected, though, like the podcast itself, I suppose -- so not necessarily a bad thing.

At roughly 50 minutes per "chapter," you're not looking at a deep time commitment here, certainly not compared to a typical podcast or even a fully-produced audiobook. I'd grade it an A-. If you're up for something experimental and different, I'd give 36 Questions a try.