Monday, September 18, 2017

Command Performance

The Emmys were last night, and while I often use the day after an awards show to share snarky comments my friends and I lobbed at the screen, the truth is that show just wasn't our priority this year. We watched some of it (get ready for hundreds of Sean Spicer think pieces, why is the announcer always YELLING AT ME?, Jeremy Piven looks like he showed up at a Halloween party in a Jeremy Piven costume), but we spent the bulk of the night watching last Monday's season finale of Preacher, the new Rick and Morty, and the new episode of The Orville.

The Orville did inch along slightly from the pilot in finding the right formula: it was a little bit more consistent with the humor this week, and leaned a little more into the "everyone talks and acts like a normal human" conceit. And, of course, it remained a loving clone of Star Trek: The Next Generation, scooping up plot threads from at least three episodes of that series (the captain is abducted by aliens, a junior officer has to command for the first time, an alien crew member has a baby), and putting them through the blender.

The Orville was trying to weave in a new element this week, a dash of Star Trek's high-and-mighty moralizing. It came in the form of speechifying about how future humans have moved past zoos and imprisoning animals for entertainment. That was pure Star Trek right there (and about as bluntly delivered as in any Trek episode that actually articulated its moral in dialogue). I prefer to let the viewer read between the lines on their own, though I will admit that it changes the lens a bit to hear futuristic morality speechified by people who use words like "sucks" and make marijuana edibles with their replicator.

The budget, though still substantial, seemed far more realistic for a weekly series this time around. We got a few digital sets for the zoo, a lot of replicator visual effects, and a healthy number of background extras, but overall this seemed more like the level of execution we can expect in a regular episode... and it still made the whole thing pleasing to the eye.

I appreciated the focus on character -- Mercer and Grayson revisiting everything good and bad about their relationship, Kitan's command dilemma and Dr. Finn's "Obi-Wan"-like advice. Still, as the show learns to deploy more weapons from the arsenal, I do hope they learn to do so with more subtlety. This was a small step in the right direction, but only if you're staring right at the needle looking for it to move. I'd give this episode a B.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Batty

As we approach the final quarter of the year, a lot of the movies I missed earlier in the year are starting to make their way to Blu-ray, streaming, HBO, and the like. I get to catch up a bit. Recently, that meant watching The Lego Batman Movie. (I know, it's supposed to be LEGO. I'm not doing that all through this post; I don't want it to look like I'm screaming at everybody.)

Taking Will Arnett's rendition of Batman from the original Lego Movie and pushing him center stage, this movie does a pretty good job of fulfilling both the promises in its title -- it's both a credible Batman movie and a credible Lego movie. On the Batman side, we get a story about Bruce Wayne (slowly) finding room in his heart for a new family after building his entire life around the loss of his parents (which, thankfully, this movie doesn't dramatize for the umpteenth time). The story is a direct reaction to (and sometimes parody of) the increasingly broody portrayals of Batman in film, putting him through a story in which he learns to feel some emotion other than rage.

As a Lego movie, it's once again a gonzo buffet of anything and everything you might plausibly (or implausibly) stuff into a movie fueled by a child's imagination. You get more Batman characters than you've ever heard of (and you're encouraged to look them up) and a rogue's gallery of baddies from every other property Warned Brothers studios controls. There are also (as in the original movie) key moments in the plot that hinge on the fact that these are in fact Legos we're talking about. It's a lot of fun.

The movie comes at you with off the charts intensity. The dialogue is fast and loaded with joke after joke. There are visual gags everywhere you look. I'm not sure if this is all intended for a kid with a short attention span, or an adult who will see every part of this film dozens of times while their kids have it on. Either way, if one moment doesn't work for you, you don't have to wait long for the next. And if a joke does work for you, rest assured that you'll probably get a callback to it later in the film, whether it's about Robin's costume choices, guns that go "pew pew pew" when fired, or Batman's admiration of his own abs.

It's kind of crazy how deep the casting bench goes, and how even many of the casting choices could be regarded as jokes in and of themselves. There's an Arrested Development reunion placing Michael Cera as Robin opposite Will Arnett's Batman. After Rosario Dawson has become a ubiquitous presence in the Marvel Universe, she now moves over to DC as Barbara Gordon. Siri is the voice of the "'puter" (no credit to Susan Bennett). Zach Galifianakis takes a spin as the Joker. Voldemort is actually in the movie, voiced by Eddie Izzard -- even though Ralph Fiennes is also in the movie (as Alfred).

There's Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome -- both parts of Garfunkel and Oates. Billy Dee Williams is the voice of Two Face, a promise fulfilled after almost 30 years since he played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's Batman. Conan O'Brien, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Ellie Kemper, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam Devine, Mariah Carey, Chris Hardwick... if seems like if a working actor (or non-actor!) didn't record a line for The Lego Batman Movie, they must not have wanted to.

In fact, the movie does buckle a bit under all the weight at times. But it's consistently fun, and does a good job of not just being for the kids. I give it a B. It carries the baton well for the emerging Lego film franchise.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Tale Between Two Cities

It's rare to find a game that accommodates a large number of players without it being a "party game." But my group has recently come across one in Between Two Cities, a tile-laying, city-building game designed by Ben Rosset and Matthew O'Malley.

The game is played over three rounds, at the end of which each player will have taken part in building two cities: each in a 4x4 grid, one shared with the player on their left, and one shared with the player on their right. In round one, you begin with 7 square tiles, from which you draft two and pass the remainder. You (and your adjacent partners) then decide which of your two selections goes in which of your two cities (and where) -- you place one tile in each. Repeating the draft twice puts 6 tiles into each city, three that you drafted, and three drafted by your partner in that city.

Round two repeats the process, but with a twist. The tiles in this round are like dominos, with two squares positioned attached to one another. You're dealt 3 of these, and must choose one for each of your two cities. Round three wraps up the game by returning to the round one system (single tiles, though passing in the opposite direction), completing each 4x4 city.

Scoring then takes place for each city. There are six different categories (colors) of tiles, each one scoring by a different means -- some want a certain geography, some want the presence of other types of tiles, others compare against the other cities built during the game. Once scoring of the cities is complete, each player's score is whichever of their two cities is worth fewer points. So you want to try to push your two city's developments in equal measure, and truly work with your two partners to make each one be the best it can.

The game takes up to 7 players, and I have no reason to think there's much difference playing with anywhere from 3 on up -- the only difference is how many opponents aren't also your partners; the game won't take appreciably longer to play, as all decision-making is done simultaneously throughout. (Having not looked at the rulebook myself, I don't know how a 1- or 2-player game would operate exactly, but the game is supposed to work for those numbers too.)

The decisions you make here are pretty satisfying. There aren't so many negotiations with partners as to turn this into mini-Diplomacy. Usually, it's pretty clear which of your two drafted tiles is best for which city, as is the decision where to place a tile. Keeping the cities to a slim 4x4 grid helps that. It also helps the length of the game, which can easily be played in under 30 minutes -- even with slower players, and distractions or conversations interrupting the game. (The box actually touts a 20 minute run time, which seems totally plausible to me.)

Satisfying but short, good for a large group while still being strategic and not a party game? That's a pretty rare game indeed. (I hope past reviews have made clear that I have nothing against a good party game -- and there are some that are quite good. But that's not always the itch you want to scratch on game night.) I'd probably give the actual gameplay of Between Two Cities a B+ grade. But as a nod to the achievement and the design, hitting this niche and making it so that there is such a game that my group can play, I think I'll nudge it up to an A-

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It's On

Enough people went to see the new film adaptation of Stephen King's It this weekend to break a few box office records. So at this point, my take on the movie might be be redundant. But in case you weren't with the crowds (or in case you care what I thought), here goes:

It towers among Stephen King's doorstop novels as one of the "doorstopiest" -- it's this and The Stand, pretty much. A group of seven kids, self-declared Losers, must come together to fight an ancient evil that nests in their tiny Maine town. Nostalgia has made famous the 1990 TV mini-series adaptation (which I watched at the time), praised widely and correctly for Tim Curry's great performance, pilloried widely and correctly for how the scariness/violence/profanity/etc. had to be toned down too much for broadcast television... and for a lame ending. (That said, this is one of the handful of King books I've read, and I found the author's ending lacking too.) This new It is a worthy effort that rights those wrongs.

A smart but simple decision was made in the adaptation. Where almost every other "franchise" starter seems to bungle things by failing to make one good movie as it chases the dream of sequels, It excises half the book entirely (the return to fight the monster as adults) leaving us with a complete and contained tale of tormented kids banding together to face down evil. This movie's story works whether a sequel follows or not... though you'd better believe we will get one after the box office success it has had.

There's a bit of a "throw everything at the wall" quality to all the ways the movie tries to scare, to a degree where you might argue that it has a numbing effect at some point. That said, each scare is realized with loving care, and the sheer saturation of them means you're going to find at least some scenes in the film effective. (You could even counter that the numbing effect, if you feel one, appropriately tracks the journey of the kids as they learn to stand up to their fears.)

Most effective is that the scares are not all of one type. There are moments of prolonged suspense, like the opening sequence at the sewer grate that you know isn't going to end well for poor Georgie. There are scenes that successfully leverage visual effects, like a nightmarish vision of a creepy emaciated painting come to life. There are scenes that hit you with jump scares, like a belching torrent of blood that gives The Shining a run for its money. There are even subtle scares inserted in ways the film is willing to let go unnoticed. (When Ben does his library research early in the movie, watch the librarian in the background!) Perhaps most effective of all are the scares that aren't strictly supernatural; "It" is only one source of terror for the kids of this film, with the sociopathic bullies and neglectful (or outright abusive) parents being even more relatable horrors.

The cast is wonderful. It's rare and hard to find a good child actor to carry a movie, and this film must do it many times over. I found Sophia Lillis the real standout as Beverly, the lone female among the Losers, though it's just as easy to praise Jaeden Lieberher as Bill or Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben. It's also great fun to see Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things as the foul-mouthed Ritchie.

Then, of course, there's Bill SkarsgÄrd as the favorite face of "It," Pennywise the Dancing Clown. With the unenviable task of following Tim Curry, the one thing everyone liked about the mini-series, he carves out an altogether different performance that's just as memorable -- a more monstrous and feral take that's equally valid.

While I do wish that everyone who sees It would also/instead see the simply phenomenal Get Out, I can't begrudge It the success. It's a solid horror movie, and a good deal of fun. I give it a B+. If you're a fan of the genre and missed the opening weekend stampede, take the time in the weekends ahead to catch up.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Old Wounds

It's been more than a decade since a Star Trek series was on television. This month, we'll suddenly have one or two (or still none), all depending on how you count. We're two weeks away from Star Trek: Discovery, the Trek series that isn't quite on television because you have to buy CBS' streaming service to watch it. But this week, we got the premiere of The Orville, the Star Trek series that isn't quite a Star Trek series.

The Orville comes from Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy and American Dad fame. He's a lifelong Star Trek fan himself (he even pulled strings to land a cameo in an episode of Enterprise), and his solution to "no Star Trek show on the air" was to make one of his own. It's the adventures of a low-level ship with a less-than-top-shelf crew, exploring the galaxy.

Some people were expecting Galaxy Quest: The TV Series here, but The Orville definitely isn't that. This show isn't a parody or satire of Star Trek -- the closest it comes to that is actually putting seat belts in their space vehicles. The jokes don't come a mile a minute; they're actually rather sparse for a Seth MacFarlane production. Instead, The Orville is pretty straightforward Star Trek (and in particular, Star Trek: The Next Generation), in which the characters aren't the ultra-enlightened future citizens of Gene Roddenberry's imagination. They basically talk like regular 21st-century people, have normal reactions to outrageous things, and are "just like you and me."

There's been a fair amount of negative critical response to the show, much along the lines of "it's not funny" and/or "the normal people angle isn't enough of a twist to provide fuel for an entire series." Depending on your expectations, those are fair criticisms. But when I watched the first episode, I watched it for what I think Seth MacFarlane intended: to have his own Star Trek series. By those standards, The Orville does a bit better.

The production values of the show are sky high. Ridiculous, really... as in, "they can't possibly afford to make the show look this good and have this many special effects every week, can they?" good. It has a bombastic and entertaining orchestral musical score. It has its share of fun Trek-ish sci-fi gimmicks -- the first episode, for example, features technology that can accelerate time within a bubble universe (and pays off with a rather clever way of using said technology).

There are some good cast members in the mix. Beside MacFarlane (who of course must star in his own dream project), there's actual Star Trek veteran Penny Johnson Jerald (who should be on TV whenever she wants to be; she's great) and Adrianne Palicki (who was great on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before they chose to spin her off onto a series that didn't actually happen).

But there's a lot about the pilot episode that isn't "there" yet. The exposition is super-clunky, particularly in a scene which serves as rapid-fire introductions to the main characters, and becomes the only intel we get about some of them. (One character is set up as a "racist" cyborg, but no further evidence of that elitism is shown in the episode. Another character is said to come from a single-gendered species, but this too is treated like a comedic set-up for which a punchline never comes.)

All that said, it's important when thinking of this as a kinda-sorta Star Trek series to remember that most of the Star Trek series weren't great out of the gate either. The Next Generation in particular, which this most resembles, was far from great in its first episode -- or hell, for pretty much its entire first season. No, I'm not ready to declare undying love and allegiance for The Orville, but I do feel like there is some potential here.

Certainly, I want the show to get better, and fast. This is not 1987, so the quality bar is higher, and shows don't get entire 26 episode seasons and easy renewal guarantees in which to find themselves. The Orville will need to get better within two or three installments, or it's likely to get lost in the crush when more fall TV premieres. But I'd give the first episode a B- or so, just enough on the right side of the line for me to give it another shot.

In a few weeks, we'll see if actual Star Trek can start off on a stronger foot.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Freeze Your Mind

Denver has gotten to be a big enough theater town that most touring Broadway productions make a lengthy stop here, and a few even begin here -- the national tour for The Book of Mormon originated here, as will Dear Evan Hansen next year. But right now, Denver's actually the try-out city for a show before it heads to New York -- the brand new production of Disney's Frozen.

Continuing the tradition of adapting its biggest animated hits into stage musicals, Frozen is the now omnipresent story of magical sister Elsa and adventurous sister Anna. (Any guesses how long we have before the live-action movie version?) It's a solid choice for adaptation among Disney's many solid films this decade, already featuring a number of great songs (including, of course, the ubiquitous "Let It Go"). Less work is needed to flesh Frozen out to a two-act show than, say, if they'd attempted a Big Hero 6 musical.


I noted of the original movie (which I loved) that it was a bit front-loaded with music. The song team from the film, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, are back to address that, creating a number of new numbers for the stage production -- most of them for Act Two. There might still be a little bit of work to do here. The Act Two opener, the slapstick "Hygge," was a huge crowd-pleaser, and a late new solo for Anna, "True Love," was a moving scene. But in between, the pace of Act Two did feel a bit slow -- even though its running time was less than an hour. That said, part of the challenge here is reaching the high bar set by existing songs (all of which return here).

One element that's definitely firing on all cylinders is the stagecraft. The production values of this show are sky high, pulling out all the stops to realize Elsa's icy magic. There's video projection, extensive use of trap doors and turntables, and even some wire work. All that's on top of a barrage of elaborate sets; even the ones used only for a single scene would be the envy of any regional theater (and would blow their budget for a whole season of productions, too). There's an elaborate costume for the reindeer Sven that makes the human inside all but vanish, a surprisingly expressive rod puppet for the snowman Olaf, and a procession of luxurious costumes. I can say unequivocally that I've never seen a theater production as visually compelling as this.

The show is also well cast. Elsa and Anna are played by Caissie Levy and Patti Murin, two veterans of different productions of Wicked. Frozen took rather clear inspiration from that musical (to the point of even casting its original star Idina Menzel), and as the snake eats its tail and the story heads to the stage, these two talented performers understand perfectly how to make it more theatrical. Perhaps even more compelling were the two children cast to play Young Elsa and Young Anna in the opening 10 minutes of the show -- these players rotate every night as children in Broadway musicals always do, but the girls at our performance (particularly the unstoppable Young Anna) really made an impact.

They're still said to be tweaking the show; the song list wasn't even printed in the program, but rather on an insert tucked between its pages. But even if the production just went to Broadway exactly as is, it would no doubt enjoy a long and successful run. Of course, when making a "copy," you do lose a little bit of the vividness of the original, and that does feel the case to me here. Still, the musical version of Frozen is a great experience I'm glad I had. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Here's the Thing

The blog has been out of commission for a week now as I've been in the process of moving. But now, amid the piles of boxes that are slowly coalescing into home, things have settled enough to try to get back to business as usual here.

I'll start with some very brief thoughts on a silly little party game I played on Labor Day -- The Game of Things...

(cue dramatic opening Game of Thrones music)

This is one of those "spark thought and conversation" sort of games, where a card each round provides a topic for the players ("things you enjoy but don't do often enough, "things you would find torturous," etc.). Everyone writes an answer, and then people try to guess who wrote what.

This would probably be a forgettable game, except for the novel element of how it's scored. Once all the answers have been submitted and the round's designated "reader" has read them all, players take turns one at a time trying to pair up one answer with the person who wrote it. If you guess right, you score a point, and that person is eliminated from guessing for the rest of the round. You continue around the circle until every answer has been paired up. Thus, the extra wrinkle is that you have incentive for your answer not to be guessed.

What ensued was hardly the best party game I've played, but it was a format into which we could inject a little bit of deduction and strategy. You want to write something that doesn't quite seem like the answer you'd actually give. Maybe something that sounds like someone else would have written it. Then can you find the clues that reveal one of your friends even when they were trying to obscure their normal way of thinking?

Even with the twist, the game is only going to be as good as your friends are witty, and fortunately I have a good group for that. We had a lot of laughs (including the biggest laugh I think we've ever had playing a party game -- tears streaming down faces in full "you had to be there" mode). Still, there are other games far more likely to make game night, even when we're all in a party game mood.

I'd give The Game of Things a B-. It's right about on that line of "would play if suggested, wouldn't suggest it myself."