Friday, July 01, 2016

Evolve or Die

Over the years, I've come across a lot of board games about evolving dinosaurs. Amazingly, it was only a couple of years ago that one finally called itself Evolution.

As with most of the "evolution games," Evolution lets you graft new abilities onto existing creatures you control, as you try to guide them to the food they need to survive and protect them from predators. The specific mechanics here are different than the rest, in some ways resembling a trading card game. Card advantage drives you to play with as many species as you can, but it grows increasingly difficult to protect more than a couple creatures at a time. Card combos emerge not just by the abilities you pair together on a single creature, but in the ways each of your creatures can interact with the others.

There are some satisfying ways to use herbivores to interact indirectly with your opponents. If you've got your feeding needs under control, you can take steps to try to deliberately starve enemy creatures. If your opponents evolve a particular means of attacking you, you can evolve abilities that work as direct counters to them. There's a nice relationship between everything, and the game lasts long enough that you can really enjoy the way it ebbs and flows.

I'm just unsure how good it works as a multiplayer game. The game's system for carnivores uses direct attacking, and you can't protect yourself from everyone. I mean that literally; if everyone decides to gang up on you (for legitimate reasons like your perceived lead in the game, or more questionable reasons that might have nothing to do with the game), there's really nothing you can do. And if you've fallen behind in scoring (because of your bad choices, or because your opponents collectively put you there), the game doesn't seem to offer much help in catching up.

So while I had fun playing the game, and would play it again at least a few times more to further explore the interactions between the creature abilities, I'm not sure than the game has legs for me in the long term. I'd call it a B-, or maybe a B, overall. I was definitely intrigued in some ways, but with some reservations.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Catching the Red Eye

Sometimes I find myself in the mood for a short movie not likely to demand intense concentration. That's how I recently wound up watching the 2005 thriller Red Eye. It centers on a hotel manager trapped on a cross-country flight as a man tries to coerce her into aiding a political assassination.

I didn't quite pluck the movie out of the blue; there were a couple of things about it that stirred my curiosity. One was whether it would be able to wring much of a narrative out of the inherently limited premise of being trapped on an airplane. The answer turned out to be "yes and no." The movie opens before takeoff, and spends a fair amount of time setting up characters before reaching the core conceit. And then -- at the risk of being a bit spoilery here -- the final act unfolds after the flight arrives at its destination, allowing for other scenarios to play out. The flight itself occupies only perhaps half the movie, and the movie's short run time means that the gimmick isn't drawn out past its expiration.

The other main point of interest to me was the movie's director, Wes Craven. This is the man who defined and redefined horror/thriller conventions again and again throughout a long career. I was curious to see what he'd done here, particularly since Red Eye came after he'd made the (first three) Scream movies and partially skewered some of his own techniques in doing so. Here, Craven keeps the tension drawn taut as the movie speeds along.

That said, there really isn't much room to play within this limited gimmick. And Wes Craven doesn't really pull any previously unknown tricks out of his hat. This is a case of a script and director proceeding rather workmanlike through all the expected beats. Nothing about the movie is truly harrowing (unless you're afraid of flying, I suppose), nor is anything about it truly surprising.

Rachel McAdams is at times compelling as the lead character, the terrorized Lisa. But the final act undermines some of her self-reliance and defiance, running her through some of the genre's more disheartening damsel-in-distress beats. Cillian Murphy is serviceable as the villainous Jackson Rippner (get it?), but it feels like the movie relies more on his unconventional appearance to convey "creepy" than on any particular aspect of his performance.

Overall, you could do worse with your movie choice, particularly in the often-schlocky horror/thriller genre. But I'd still say this movie merits a C+ at best. The odds are good that if you're the sort of person who would enjoy this movie, you've probably already seen it at some point in the 11 years since it was released.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

TNG Flashback: Preemptive Strike

With just one more episode to go, "Preemptive Strike" was the last one hour installment of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ro Laren has returned from advanced tactical training at Starfleet to a position on the Enterprise. But that job is shortlived when she's tapped to infiltrate the Maquis. Living under cover with these people (and their struggle against the Cardassians) awakens memories of her own fight during the occupation of Bajor, and her loyalties are soon tested. Will she betray Captain Picard and Starfleet, or the freedom fighters that remind her so much of herself?

According to show runner Jeri Taylor, this episode did not come as you might expect, from a desire to bring Ro Laren back one last time. In fact, after actress Michelle Forbes turned down the chance to take her character to Deep Space Nine (in the role that became Kira Nerys), her relationship with the show quickly soured. Taylor recalled that efforts to bring Ro back after her final appearance in "Rascals" had wound up with Forbes' agent saying, "Please leave us alone!" But yet again, the series found itself rushing toward a deadline with no other workable story idea but this one, which depended on getting the actress back. Taylor was able to get on the phone directly with Michelle Forbes, where she pitched an emotional story with Ro at the center. Forbes went for it.

I imagine it's because Forbes was promised an episode all about her that the main characters don't appear very much. Ironically, the one regular featured most is Captain Picard -- despite the fact that this episode was directed by Patrick Stewart. This was his fifth and final Star Trek episode, and the first one that didn't have Data as one of the focal characters. Given that the story is all about a character's inner turmoil, though, Stewart was a natural choice.

I'm torn on what to make of Ro's arc in this story. On the one hand, the writing is very carefully constructed to justify her final choice to betray Starfleet. She expresses sympathy for the Maquis even at the beginning. Her character history supports the choice. And she's given a father figure in the character of Macias, who not only reminds her so much of her real father, but who stands in opposition to the other father figure in her life, Picard. When Macias is killed by the Cardassians, Ro's decision is made -- she can't let down her father a second time. It all tracks.

On the other hand, does this at some level compromise Ro's character, her fierce determination, by reducing her to a little girl with lingering daddy issues?

Even with those doubts, I can be glad that the show did go for an "unhappy" ending like this. Classic Star Trek, and early Next Generation, would surely have had Ro choose Starfleet and duty in the end. (That's what they made Wesley Crusher do.) But factors had piled up here to allow for an alternative choice -- factors like the existence of the darker Deep Space Nine, the fact that Ro was an established character with moral ambiguity, and the fact that the show was ending.

As I noted, this is also a big episode for Picard, though in far more subtle ways than it is for Ro. The opening scene in and outside Ten Forward tells you a lot about how far Picard has come in seven years. He recognizes that Ro is feeling awkward at her own party, and gives her cover to leave it. Younger Picard would never have noticed her discomfort, much less have done anything to alleviate it. More than that, Ro in particular means a lot to him, as we see in the bar scene where he calls her by her given name, Laren. (That's a very interesting scene, by the way, in which the characters must exchange dialogue about one thing -- her second thoughts regarding the Maquis -- while portraying the physical actions of something else -- a romantic encounter.) In the final scene of the episode, we see Picard's loss, his quiet rage, when he doesn't say a word to Riker. To underscore the moment, the episode takes the highly unusual step of fading out on Picard's face, not cutting to an exterior shot of the Enterprise before the final credits.

Yet the episode isn't just about the character moments; it actually serves up some of the biggest action scenes of the entire series. The opening battle between the Maquis ships and the Cardassian vessel has some amazing complex visuals for pre-CG effects, putting the most ships on screen at once that ever appeared on The Next Generation. And the phaser shootout at the Maquis colony is similarly impressive, with many more visible phaser blasts than we normally get in a battle scene. It's also the only time the series ever staged a phaser fight at night, which required the use of interactive lighting on set during the filming.

Other observations:
  • Gul Evek and Admiral Nechayev get one last Next Generation appearance (though both would appear again later on another Star Trek spin-off).
  • Ro mentions her instructor in advanced tactical training, who defected to the Maquis. The writers intended this at the time as an oblique reference to Voyager's Chakotay -- though he would say later on that series that he resigned his commission years earlier than this.
  • Actress Shannon Cochran, who plays the Maquis character of Kalita, would reprise the character in the Deep Space Nine episode "Defiant" (which also saw the return of Thomas Riker).
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven includes a deleted scene and a scene extension from this episode. In the former scene, Maquis member Santos approaches Ro about Kalita's distrust; after Ro tells him a story from her time in the occupation, he invites her to the "inner circle" of the local Maquis cell. In the latter scene, Ro expresses concern to Picard that the Maquis won't surrender once trapped, as he expects they will. Both scenes provide good character moments for Ro, though neither feels like a vital cut from the episode as originally aired.
  • The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track for this episode, by Michael and Denise Okuda, and episodes writers RenĂ© Echevarria and Naren Shankar. There isn't much insight there, though. They mostly just crack (lame) jokes and make lots of comments about hair. They also completely misremember the situation surrounding the availability of Michelle Forbes, claiming that she was in a signed deal for this episode where they had to use her or pay her anyway. (Jeri Taylor's version of the story, which I related above, is corroborated in several places.) The most notable aspect of the commentary is some discussion of the Blu-ray remastering process, and where the line was drawn between upgrading old visuals and honoring original artistic intent.
Though I might have wished for a penultimate episode that felt less like a "please watch Voyager" advertisement, Ro is a compelling enough character to make something more of this story. I give "Preemptive Strike" a B.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Goose Egg

The movie Goosebumps was never on any "to see" list of mine, but I did wind up watching it recently. Even allowing that it was aimed at kids, even going in with modest expectations, it managed to disappoint.

Goosebumps is inspired by author R.L. Stine's famous children's book series. Rather than adapting any one given story, the movie presents "Stine" as a character, whose spooky literary creations are all magically entrapped in the original manuscripts of the books he's written. Chaos reigns in the small town of Madison, Delaware when the books are opened and the monsters are released. It falls on Stine and a group of teenagers -- his daughter, the new-to-the-neighborhood protagonist, and the "wacky comic relief" -- to recapture them all.

I'm not sure the exact target age of the Goosebumps books, but I'd imagine you'd need to ask someone in that demographic what they thought of the movie. I have a hard time imagining that the movie hits that target. To me, it felt far too terrifying for a truly small kid, and already too silly and "kiddie" for an adventurous pre-teen looking to experience their first horror movie. Then again, it's certain that the truckload of random creatures littering the movie are references to various Goosebumps books; recognizing those connections would probably be fun for a kid who'd read them.

In any case, this is not one of those movies that offers even modest entertainment to a parent/aunt/uncle/babysitter watching this with a kid. If you like Jack Black, you'll be disappointed at how restrained he is here. (He gets most animated in the moments where his character is swatting away audience questions: "It doesn't work that way.") If you've ever seen a movie with the excellent Amy Ryan, you'll be disappointed that she's now been relegated to the thankless movie trope of the "Mom who doesn't understand." You won't be impressed by the lazy visual effects. You won't laugh at the lame jokes.

This is not Gremlins or Coraline, or even Monster House or ParaNorman. It's simply a dud, not even bad enough to be a watchable train wreck. I give Goosebumps a D-.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Winds of Winter

Last night's season finale of Game of Thrones was in many ways just as inevitable as last week's Battle of the Bastards, depending on how much you've been reading between the lines of previous subtext, checking out online fan theories, and/or reading (and re-reading) George R.R. Martin's books. Still, inevitably was far more satisfying this week (for me, at least) than last week, in large part because of the big emotions that accompanied all the big action. One thing's for sure, this season upended the show's tradition of the "more contemplative episode 10 to follow the bonkers episode 9."

Let's start in King's Landing, where Qyburn's strange talk of "rumors," Tyrion's pointed story about wildfire to Dany, and Bran's prior vision of wildfire casks all came to a head. Cersei went to a place even madder than the Mad King, setting off the wildfire to destroy the Sept of Baelor and all of her enemies. Well, she would say all... but Cersei being Cersei, she was thinking only of her immediate problems and not anticipating the fallout from her actions. The alliance of the Martells and Tyrells against her (and joined by Daenerys, thanks to Varys -- Cersei couldn't have anticipated that) will surely be more than even a great tactician could handle. And that's not Cersei in any case.

But this story line was about more than its flashy ending. First, we had a long opening montage setting things up, scored by conspicuously sparse music that really set the tone for something fateful and irrevocable to take place. We also had Loras' trial first, a sad ending for that character. I do like the moment when Margaery's mask of false piety fell and she cursed the gods in her efforts to spur everyone to leave the sept. It did confirm for us in those final moments that her recent actions have been part of a ruse -- though it's a shame we'll never know to what end. She allowed her brother to be mutilated and indoctrinated, though, so I'm not sure it was such a great plan.

We also saw that Qyburn's version of the "little birds" are not just information gatherers. They're a bunch of stabbing little psychopaths that carved up Pycelle into pieces and left Lancel to bleed out helplessly in the underground. Yikes.

In the morally complex world of Game of Thrones, where the tables constantly turn, it was hard not to enjoy the moment where Cersei got her revenge of Septa Unella. Objectively horrible as it was to tie someone to a table and hand her over to the Zombified Mountain (who we briefly got to see without his helmet), it was hard not to cheer Cersei on in that moment.

But her joy would soon turn to ashes with the moment Cersei could never have predicted. Tommen committed suicide, having lost his wife, the High Septon who had converted him, and countless lives he actually cared for (more than Cersei, for sure). Cersei wound up Queen on the Iron Throne, but having lost all of her children to the endeavor. And even if a combined group of foreign enemies weren't now solely bent on her downfall, it seems as though her methods would surely have left most of the people of King's Landing against her too. Look what she might do to you!

King's Landing didn't bring us the last of the episode's deaths. Over at the Twins, Walder Frey got the ending everyone has been so furiously wishing upon him since the Red Wedding. First, though, he got put in his place by Jaime, who told him off for the worthless ally he really is, a pretender to power. That scene itself was enough to put a smile on your face.

But later, of course, Arya got a hold of Walder Frey. And her idea of justice was even more twisted than the most of the audience would have concocted for him. Killing off all his children, baking them into a pie, and forcing him to eat it? Yikes. Then, and only then, did Arya unmask herself and give Walder a sendoff that made the warm feeling from the previous Cersei/Unella scene seem infinitely small by comparison. Good riddance to one of the shows biggest remaining villains, and hello to vengeful Arya and her list of names.

In a moment of joy that didn't require the audience to be glad about vicious murders, Sam finally reached Oldtown. Whether the maester thing works out for him or not, you had to simply enjoy the moment where he came face to face with all those books. (Though perhaps earlier developments in the show had tainted that a bit. I couldn't help but think as I looked at that vast cache of books: that's a serious fire hazard. Do they really want to keep those all in one building?)

In the north, we saw the fallout of last week's confrontation at Winterfell. (Whose symbol during the opening credits had been restored to the dire wolf.) Davos came at Melisandre with a full head of steam, but settled for seeing the Red Woman exiled instead of killed. But the way he promised to kill her if he saw her again carried the sort of import that usually Means Something in this story. Certainly, it doesn't seem likely she'll just ride off into the sunset never to be seen again. It seems unlikely that, having resurrected Jon Snow herself, that she'd ever change in her conviction that she's the Prince Who Was Promised. And yet it is notable that if she's now heading south (generally toward Dorne?) she might be on a path to encounter the other person who Red Priestesses have anointed as the chosen one: Daenerys.

Sansa and Jon's conversation was perhaps the one unsatisfying scene in the episode for me. Not because I wanted sparks to fly between them, because as Jon said, they can't be against each other now. But because Sansa apologized for hiding her secret army without providing any reason for doing so. So I hold to my assertion last week -- she let thousands die for the sake of her dramatic entrance. Sigh.

After six years, Littlefinger finally revealed his ultimate plans to someone else. And while his ambitions had been clear to anyone watching, hearing him say the words out loud, that he meant to seat himself on the Iron Throne, certainly carried weight. His twisted love/lust of Sansa may hold him in check for a short while, but watching him sit in the corner as the North crowned Jon Snow their king, you have to wonder how long that love/lust will keep him from enacting another betrayal. Sansa at least articulated it earlier: only a fool would trust Littlefinger. So we'll see what happens when he turns coat again.

And as for that scene in which Jon Snow was crowned King in the North, it was interesting that it came in the wake of the reveal of his true parentage (oh, we'll get to that), and yet that fact didn't play at all in his "coronation." Bastard and all, the North demanded him. That's patriarchy for you. Maybe I'm just sad that I'll never get to see the person I most want on the throne now, young little badass Lyanna Mormont.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daario said the words that fans have been thinking (or shouting) for years now: "Fuck Meereen." I'm curious where the need to have Dany leave Daario behind comes from -- is that how things will play out when George R.R. Martin writes the story? Was this some sort of deal worked out between Game of Thrones and Orphan Black over recurring guest star Michiel Huisman? ("Let us have him all this season, and you can have him all next season?") Are we meant to think that Dany is further growing up as a ruler by leaving him behind? I'm not sure what that all amounted to.

Well, other than the following scene, in which Tyrion once against became Hand, trusted advisor and executor to royalty. Tyrion's speech about belief was a powerful one, and made clear that he's behind Daenerys not out of mere opportunism.

And though I'm now jumping to the end of the episode, Dany's story finally took us to the moment we've all been waiting for, the heroic shot of her thousands of ships sailing the ocean, with three dragons flying high above. Here she comes to kick some ass.

I skip to the ending in order to get to one scene last: Bran's vision of the Tower of Joy. The theory of Jon's parentage has been so widely discussed among fans (book and show) that it even had a name, "R+L=J." I don't seek out spoilers myself, and yet I can't remember I time when I didn't know this theory (and I'm fairly sure that I didn't suss it out myself the first time I read the books). The theory seemed so inevitable, so right, that it only left people quibbling over details: was this a Return of the Jedi thing where Jon had a twin sister too? Was the promise Lyanna extracted from Ned something more specific that just to take care of her child?

I'm glad that the truth was simple, not trying to surprise people by adding some other twist. (And I'm sure there were some people out there for whom even this much was a surprise, a twist.) We can all finally move on together, though: Jon "Snow" is really the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark -- the legitimate heir to the iron throne, with blood of fire and ice in his veins. Of course, with his eyes on the real enemy, the White Walkers, it seems unlikely he'll come into any serious conflict with Daenerys over his claim to the throne. And that's even assuming Bran ever hooks back up with him and reveals this information. And if anyone believes Bran when he does. Or if they even care -- as I said earlier, the North seems to have no qualms seating a bastard on their throne.

So there you have it. Season six had a few ups and downs, but I think it punched out strong with their best episode of the year, a cathartic, wild ride. I give the episode an A. And now our watch begins... the long wait until next season.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Cry U.N.C.L.E.

I'm not immune to the sensibilities of director Guy Ritchie, having enjoyed his feature film debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But I've found many of his other movies average at best, and to that list I can now add his most recent, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Based on the 1960s television show of the same name (which I've never seen, so I couldn't say how faithful the adaptation is), the movie centers on two Cold War super-spies, one American and one Russian, who are forced to work together for the greater good. I checked out the movie, hoping for something like a throwback James Bond sort of film -- spiked with some of Guy Ritchie's high octane action. There was plenty of the latter, less of the former... and less still of any real sense of fun.

It doesn't make for a helpful review, I know, but I'm hard pressed to identify exactly what was wrong with the movie. I can only say that it became really bogged down in between the action set pieces. After an eye-catching opening chase sequence to introduce all the main characters, the movie would plod along for long stretches, testing my patience, before arriving at the next action scene. Touches of macabre humor were occasionally entertaining, even as they seemed somehow jarring within the 1960s period setting.

Perhaps much of the problem rests on the shoulders of the two leads, Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill. I enjoyed the former well enough in The Social Network, and the latter well enough in the TV series The Tudors and the movie Man of Steel (my problems with that movie weren't about his performance). But here, the movie seems to find both men more charismatic and charming than they actually come across. The macho brinksmanship between their two characters wears pretty thin too.

The casting problems don't stop there, as the movie underuses Hugh Grant and Jared Harris in minor roles. But there is one performer who does stand out: Alicia Vikander, who appeared here in the same banner year she made The Danish Girl (which I have yet to see) and Ex Machina (which I loved). She has charm to spare, and drags the movie's more effective moments out of Hammer and Cavill. She's the one thing the movie has to offer beyond its exhilarating chase scenes.

Inoffensive but quite forgettable, I'd give The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a C-. It's no worse than many a big, dumb action movie, but I suspect true fans of that genre would prefer a bigger, dumber, actionier movie than this one.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Barenaked on the Rocks

Late last month, Barenaked Ladies released their latest album -- not a collection of new songs, but instead a new live album. BNL Rocks Red Rocks is notable to fans of the band for a few reasons I'll get into, but it's of particular significance to me: I attended this very concert in 2015. (In fact, it's the one I alluded to in my review of their then-new album, Silverball.) During the years they were on their own independent label (around 10 years ago), the band regularly sold their concerts on USB, on site after each show. This is their first live album since they ended that practice.

It's also their first live album since singer Steven Page left the band in 2009, which sets this release apart from previous concert albums. This is the first commercially available recording to reflect how the band now performs some of their earlier hits. In some cases, the new takes on old songs are definitely lacking without Page -- sometimes short on strength ("The Old Apartment") or heart ("Brian Wilson"). But in other cases, the band has tweaked the arrangements in ways that help refresh the music -- adding extended intros ("One Week") or new harmonies ("If I Had $1,000,000").

Much of the material here has never before been available on a Barenaked Ladies live album. In some cases, of course, this is because the songs come from newer, post-Page albums -- the punchy opener "Get Back Up," the uplifting "Odds Are," or the constructed-for-crowd-call-and-response "Gonna Walk." But this is also the first live album appearance of the "Big Bang Theory Theme" (which they've been playing at every show since the series premiered).

There are also a couple of non-BNL songs in the mix. Men at Work's Colin Hay was on this tour with the band, and leads them in "Who Can It Be Now?" (joined by Blaise Garza, the young saxophone player touring with Violent Femmes). Closing the album is a short snippet from Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," led in almost Jack Black-esque fashion by the band's drummer Tyler Stewart (freed to roam the stage by an instrument swap in the encore).

Also noteworthy -- this album has some of the better sound quality I've come across on a concert album. It's easy to pick out any given instrument in the mix (the bass stands out in particular as it jumps around the scale during the pauses of "Odds Are"), and each voice in the more complex harmonies is distinct (especially in the aforementioned "If I Had $1,000,000" and the new "Duct Tape Heart").

If you're a fan of Barenaked Ladies, this album is definitely worth picking up -- the completists will want it in any case, and those who haven't followed them much over the last decade can pick up most of their better songs in that time. I'd call it a solid B+.