Monday, August 20, 2018

Titanic

This weekend, I caught a lightweight bit of fun at my local theater, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. It's a jump to the big screen for the Cartoon Network series about goof-off superheroes hanging around their fortress between their superheroics. (It's a series I've actually only caught on occasion, but has definitely made me laugh.)

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is delightfully meta, as team leader Robin laments not having a superhero movie of his own and sets out to make one happen. DC allows the characters to be goofy and irreverent, much as with The LEGO Batman Movie, and with similar results. That is, the movie is both pretty funny, and actually manages to be better than all the "official" DC superhero fare of the last decade (outside of Wonder Woman).

On the one hand, it is very much a movie for kids (and adults who sometimes act like them). Early on, you get the longest fart joke I've seen since Blazing Saddles. Later on, there's an even longer poop joke that keeps getting one-upped. There's plenty in between aimed at the same demographic. (But don't pretend you aren't laughing at least a little.)

The big reward -- as has been the case with Warner Bros. animation for decades and decades -- comes in being an adult who pays attention between the slapstick. There's just as much humor in the movie (maybe more) that will sail right over the kids' heads. Plenty of it is referential. None of it is deferential or reverential; biting the hand that feeds you is this movie's brand. It mocks the tropes of superhero films with glee (all while actually being a decent one itself, of course).

The core voice cast of the show is there to voice their established characters (Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, the omnipresent Tara Strong, and Hynden Walch). Joining them are two bigger names no stranger to animation -- Will Arnett (LEGO Batman himself) and Kristen Bell. There's also a raft of great cameos and casting of minor characters.

Is it one of the best things I've seen all year? No. But it delivers exactly the fun it promises. And, at a moment when even Marvel has mostly swerved into self-seriousness, it comes at just the right time. I give Teen Titans Go! To the Movies a B.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Invasive Reading

I've previously written about how I don't like Terry Brooks novels as much as I did when I discovered them as a teenager -- and how they made such an impact on me then that I keep reading them anyway. So, another year, another new book. His most recent release is The Skaar Invasion, the second of four books in The Fall of Shannara, a series meant to conclude the story of his long-running Shannara fantasy setting.

After this second book, it does certainly seem as though I'm going to get the closure I'm hoping for out of this series. Shannara has always been both serial and episodic, with Brooks releasing new connected trilogies all the time, but skipping decades and centuries in between. It didn't strike me as needing an overall "end point"; I figured that he could just eternally keep time jumping to new stories. But this new book (and this now halfway-complete set) has legitimately made it feel like a capital-E Ending is coming.

Plot moves are big this time around. Long-established elements of his fantasy world are being upended and destroyed. Callbacks to earlier books in the series abound -- and they feel quite deliberate this time, rather than the unintentional self-repetition of a long-time author. Yeah, okay, I'm onboard, the Shannara books could have an ultimate conclusion, and Brooks is doing a good job in constructing it.

That said, the story is big and largely satisfying, but the writing itself far less so. The characters all feel rather shallow, lacking enough to truly separate them from one another, and even less to separate them from similar archetypes Brooks creates in basically every new set of books he writes. There are, as ever in his work, tacked-on romances without any true sense of passion. Lengthy narrations masked as character introspection (from characters who don't seem like they should be so self-aware). Not enough personality revealed through action rather than thought.

This book was not a dense read, but it nevertheless took me a couple of weeks to get through it. The experience was a weird combination of not entirely enjoying it, while being engaged by the boldness of the some story moves and curious to see what would happen next. It's an experience I haven't really had with a book since years ago when I tore through a few Dan Brown novels and then just as quickly gave up reading any more.

That this novel, and Brooks, seem to be on a clear path to closure (and that there's enough promise in the plotting to suggest it's going to be worthwhile) tips the balance for me into calling this a B- book, rather than the some-level-of-C I'd give it if I were being more influenced by the writing itself. Still, I have a couple of friends who have also read lots of Terry Brooks -- and who have given him up -- and I'm not yet rushing to tell them they should give this series a try.

We'll see if he sticks the landing.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Block Party

The movie Blockers is a new spin on an old premise. On the surface, it's stamped from the same mold as countless other teen sex comedies, with a plot spurred in motion by three high school students who make a pact with one another to lose their virginities. From there, it takes two big departures. First, the teens are all female instead of male. Second, the real focus of the movie is on the parents who learn about the prom night pact and set out to stop it.

The changes count for a lot. It's not just a balancing of the scales, "girls can like sex too" move to have teen girls make the pact. It actually lets the movie mine some new comedic ground that's largely untouched by the movies that came before. And it's an even bigger twist to not have the parents be clueless figures at the periphery of the story. Putting them front and center actually makes for an entirely different movie.

Blockers is a bit slow getting started, which is a little odd as there really isn't that complicated a story to set up here. But it does pay off later, as the characters do matter here. Each of the three teens has her own unique character arc: one is looking to "go to the next level" with a long time boyfriend, one is just looking for a warm body to check off a box on the schedule of her life, and one is going along with the group to remain closeted as a lesbian.

Similarly, the three parents chasing their daughters each have their own angle. One is a life-long single mom afraid she's losing her connection to her baby girl, one is an overprotective father (whose wife actually doesn't agree with his attitude on the pact), and one is a father trying to be there in a way he hasn't since a bitter divorce. It's actually a rather carefully constructed narrative when you take a look at it. The characters aren't a simple framework for delivering jokes, they're actually a well-stocked toolbox for offering a range of perspectives.

But soon the movie does get up to speed, and it is primarily a comedy. There are hits and misses, of course, but more hits overall. The cast is led by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz, and they make an effective comic trio. Some other reliable comic actors pop up throughout, including Hannibal Buress, June Diane Raphael, and (cast rather against his past comedic roles) Gary Cole.

I wasn't quite as taken with Blockers as I was recently with another comedy from earlier this year, Game Night. Still, it was enjoyable and fun. I give Blockers a B-. It's worth checking out if you're in the mood for something light and silly.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Cabin Pressure

Hello, readers! I have returned from GenCon (and have recovered enough to start getting back into a routine here). I figured I'd get started with the book that occupied my flight there and back, a new horror novel from Paul Tremblay called The Cabin at the End of the World.

This is possibly one of those books that's better experienced the less you know about it. It's also a very slim read, at just over 200 pages, so there's really not much hinting at the plot without digging well between the covers. Try this: a married couple, Andrew and Eric, rent a cabin far out of the way in New England, taking their adopted daughter Wen for a vacation. A group of four strangers arrive and proceed to torment the family. But it is not their wish to inflict physical harm; instead they bring an emotional torment, over what they say the family must do.

This is one of those books that seems tailor-made to become a movie. It's a compulsive page turner, and has a very tight unity of time, place, and action. Sure enough, I checked and it's already been optioned by a studio and is in development. (Getting strong reviews and endorsements from the likes of Stephen King will do that.) Tremblay's writing is strong in how it conveys a sense of space, and it's easy to roll a version of a film on the movie screen in your mind.

The scenario posed in the book will definitely strike fear into many readers. It goes right to the core of a parent's anxiety over protecting their child, and punches repeatedly. The opening pages in particular are a rather masterful unveiling of slow, creeping dread that definitely hooked me for the whole book.

The fact that the protagonists are a gay couple with an adopted daughter is definitely a plus. Though the character back stories do make this a salient point in the narrative, the simple fact is it didn't have to be this way. Tremblay could have chosen any couple with one child and written this book largely the same. It's representation done exactly right -- these characters are in their situation and also are gay; it doesn't define them or the story.

But there are some quirks to Tremblay's writing style that chipped away at my enthusiasm. Flashbacks and current action are interwoven tightly throughout the novel, but always with a shift between present tense and past tense verbage that always caused me a mental bump in the transition. He plays even more fast and loose with shifts in narrative perspective. Chapter headings identify a "perspective character," but the line is definitely blurred between how omniscient vs. subjective the writing gets. Things get very strange later in the book when two characters share perspective in a chapter; the actual sentence structure goes first person with strange "we"s and "us"s, implying odd, simultaneous thought. For me, at least, this does not work at all.

And one final word of warning. You need to be comfortable with ambiguity if you read this book. It is very much the nature of this story that you're never supposed to be sure what the the Real Truth is. Different characters have very different takes on it. There's a logical explanation that works, and a quite fanciful one. There are offshoots from the main narrative similarly steeped in uncertainty. And you will not get closure on all of it. I absolutely get what Tremblay is going for here. It fits the tone of the book, and in theory leaves readers to fill in the gaps. I'm also not certain I felt completely satisfied in the end.

But the story is, undeniably, suspenseful and chilling. I deliberately picked up the book without learning much about it, after simply hearing it was effectively horrific. On that promise, it delivers fully. I give The Cabin at the End of the World a B.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Armageddon Game

The pairing of Chief O'Brien and Dr. Bashir got a sort of "trial run" in the first season episode "The Storyteller." But it was in the second season episode "Armageddon Game" that they were truly put on the path to friendship.

A pair of alien races have put aside a long history of war, and are now seeking Federation help in destroying their deadly biological weapons known as Harvesters. Julian Bashir and Miles O'Brien help with this, only to be hunted by the aliens themselves. Meanwhile, the crew back on Deep Space Nine is told that Bashir and O'Brien have been killed in an accident -- a claim that at first only Keiko O'Brien is inclined to doubt.

Writer Morgan Gendel (a semi-regular contributor, though not a member of the staff) pitched the germ of this episode. Aliens seeking to destroy a weapon would encode the specs as living DNA inside Miles O'Brien, then seek to kill him to destroy the weapon. Gendel says he was unaware of another episode from Deep Space Nine that had already played with the idea of living memory, so the pitch had to be changed. (He's talking about "Dramatis Personae." On the surface, I hardly see the similarities.)

Show runner Michael Piller shaped most of the finished episode. He asked for a "chase movie," and inspired Gendel to watch films like Midnight Run and North by Northwest before delivering the next draft. Unfortunately, that led to... well... a movie -- a script with too many locations, models, and more to be produced on a television budget. Staff writer Ira Steven Behr joked that that's how the episode then became "a chase movie on one set." In a very late weekend rewrite, Bashir and O'Brien's escape just took them directly to an abandoned building where they holed up for the entire episode.

The result isn't entirely memorable overall in terms of plot. The episode really does need some of that excitement and thrill that the chase would have offered. There are also elements that just don't make much sense. Bashir is able to cure the infected O'Brien from death's door when they're ultimately rescued. But if curing the Harvester disease is this easy, why not just give that cure to the aliens to solve their problems? Is it really plausible that these rivals who distrust each other this much could hatch a plan against the Federation together? (Hmmm... maybe it is? If you have a reputation for pacifism as much as the Federation, you'd had to believe you could do a lot to provoke them without actually risking reprisal.)

On the other hand, the episode does allow room for a lot of great character material between Bashir and O'Brien. We get a fun variation on the trope of the "doctor who has to explain how to doctor to the non-doctor" -- the infected and dying engineer must explain engineering to the non-engineer. Meanwhile, the two get into deeply personal discussions about their outlooks on life. Bashir reveals a story about a true love from his past that he lost in favor of pursuing his career. It helps to humanize him a great deal, suggesting that perhaps his constant hounddoggery isn't young male aggression, but a deliberate effort to hold any new real connection at arm's length. He and O'Brien debate whether marriage and a family are truly compatible with a Starfleet career. O'Brien cares so deeply about it that even as he thinks he's going to die, he spends his dying breaths on trying to change Julian's mind.

While the episode never for a minute tries to make the audience believe these two have been killed (probably wisely), it nevertheless plays the impact of that for everyone back on the station. It makes for several more great moments. Quark pays a heartfelt (if odd to "hew-mons") tribute to the two, giving out free drinks in honor of his "good customers." Sisko delivers the news of Miles' death to Keiko in person, and the scene has weight because of the loss we know Benjamin himself experienced with his wife.

It's a good episode for guest star Rosalind Chao as Keiko. After a numb reaction to the news, she digs in and won't believe her husband is dead. There are plenty of ways to read this, and only Chao could say for certain what she had in mind. But episode director Winrich Kolbe claims that he discussed options with her, and that she is ultimately playing guilt. Keiko thinks she didn't work hard enough at the marriage, and thus isn't willing to consider that it's over. That certainly has dramatic heft, if you choose to see it that way. In any case, I think it's a bit sad that they "womp, womp" Keiko at the end by having her be wrong about the detail she latched onto, that led her to think the video of the accident had been forged.

Other observations:
  • Instead of wacky foreheads like most Star Trek aliens have, these aliens get wacky hairdos. So wacky, in fact, that writer Ira Steven Behr joked that the real conflict between the aliens must have originally started "because of the hairstyles." But the hair department had the last laugh, scoring an Emmy nomination for this episode in Outstanding Individual Achievement in Hairstyling for a Series.
  • We get a fun callback to O'Brien's love of Starfleet military rations.
  • Bashir mentions that he gave his medical school diaries to Dax to read. Given what the writers would decide (much later) to do with Bashir's character, it seems this was probably a pretty epic forgery.
  • Runabouts are starting to drop like flies now.
The story is a bit lackluster, but the episode does extremely well by the characters. So, all told, I give "Armageddon Game" a B.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Reviewing the Fallout

The newest installment in the Mission: Impossible series, Fallout, is being touted by many as the best of them all. That's a hard one for me to judge. These movies are a real cotton candy confection -- they're often tasty and satisfying to consume, but they instantly evaporate into nothingness. I remember liking the most recent two films, but today I couldn't tell you much about them. There's an underwater sequence in... Ghost Protocol, right? Tom Cruise hangs off the side of a plane in Rogue Nation, definitely -- that's on all the posters. The plot? Hmmmm.....

This hard-to-remember quality, combined with the long breaks between new films being released, is particularly tricky for this new installment, as it's a direct sequel to Rogue Nation. The villain is the same, the array of heroes is mostly the same, there's clear memory and history in their behavior with each other, and there are several mentions of past events. On the one hand, I find it refreshing that all this stuff matters in a big action film; on the other hand, I hadn't prepped with any "homework" of re-watching the earlier films, and just sort of had to roll with the punches.

Even if there had been no attempt at a meaningful story, though, Fallout would have delivered some solid visceral thrills. The action sequences are really a cut above this time around, very cleverly conceived. As per usual in this series, many of the stunts are filmed for real with little or no CG trickery, adding an extra visual jolt. The "mission" this time around leads very organically to the action, too. You know that movies like this are usually reverse-engineered: what sort of story can connect these two set pieces we've come up with? But Fallout doesn't feel like this at all, with action seeming to spring naturally from where the adventure leads.

I do think perhaps some of the action could have been more tightly edited, though. Exhilarating premises that start strong sometimes sputter before concluding. For example, there are two chases through the streets of Paris in the middle of the movie. Each one is rather long, and while another sequence changes the tempo between the two, they feel of a piece -- a piece that has you checking your watch after a while. The climax has similar problems. It's conceived wonderfully, breaking up the team and putting each person in the middle of their own simultaneous jeopardy. But it has a literal ticking clock that's meant to up the ante, and the actual time it all takes feels like nearly twice what's shown.

Still, if I believe myself and the ratings I gave the last few Mission: Impossible films (and I'd like to think I can), this indeed is the best of the franchise. I wish I could remember them all better, but I can say I definitely enjoyed this one. Smarter than most action fare, coming off more intense and more real (while being playful about the moments it's not realistic), Mission: Impossible -- Fallout is a fun ride. I give it a B+.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Out in the Colt

Colt Express is a board game with an inspired theme and great components to support it. Players are train robbers in the Old West, competing against each other to steal the most loot and become the greatest outlaw.

It's played across a series of train cars -- cleverly designed cardboard fold-ups that make large 3D pieces. Importantly, the inside and top of each car is visible. That's so the game can play out that fun cinematic cliche of running across the top of a train. You jump in and out of windows, climb ladders, and race between cars. A deck of cards simulates sudden braking of the train, going through tunnels, and other events that cause things to happen to your figures each round.

You're all shooting at each other and getting into fistfights, too. Whenever you take damage, a dead card is inserted into your tiny deck, which can effectively decrease your hand size and your options as you plan during each new round. A roaming sheriff figure on the train will also squeeze off shots at you, to the same damaging effect.

Up to this point, I'm mostly on board with the game. Beyond that point? Well... it starts to get a bit like RoboRally, and not in such a good way. Every round, you "program" four cards to represent the actions you'll take. Only after everyone has chosen their actions do you then reveal cards one at a time and see what really happens. There are a lot of ways the other players can interfere with your carefully laid plans. They can move the sheriff to your location, causing you damage and driving you onto the roof of the train. They can swipe the limited available loot before you can grab it. They can shoot you and inflict damage, or punch you and force you to drop loot you've gathered.

It's ultimately quite chaotic, and to me more than a little frustrating. RoboRally dilutes the frustration around the chaos in a few key ways. First, the boards are rather large, and players can place the "checkpoints" you must reach in places with more than one approach. In short, there's room to maneuver without inevitably and constantly being on top of the other players. But in Colt Express, there are only a few train cars and really nowhere to run.

Second, RoboRally's interference comes from the board just as often as the other players. Sure, a player messing with you is often what starts your troubles, but it often feels like forces out of anyone's control take over after that -- the conveyor belts, gears, and other obstacles printed on the boards. In Colt Express, all your difficulties are inflicted by one player or another -- even the movement of the sheriff pawn.

All in all, the "take that!" element of Colt Express is dialed up awfully high for my tastes. It's a fun distillation of a very specific setting, conjuring exactly the visuals it sets out to conjure. I'm simply not a fan of this much direct attacking on other players in board games. I can imagine plenty of gamers out there who would find it a real triumph. And by leaps and bounds, it's better than other combative competition games that leave me cold. Still, it's not one I'd want in my collection. I grade Colt Express a C.