Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Walking the Path

On occasion, I've written about escape rooms I've done with my friends around Denver (and one "not around Denver"). This weekend, we tried out a place that was new to us: Denver Escape Room in Northglenn. Like EscapeWorks Denver downtown, I'd give it a high recommendation.

There were 10 of us on this excursion, and we broke into two groups to try Grim Stacks (themed like a Harry Potter-esque book shop) and The Path (a Chinese themed room). I was in the latter group.

The Path was similar to the Taphophobiaroom at Crooked Key in Steamboat Springs -- it was a cleverly designed experience that avoided using any traditional locks. Working through the room was all about solving riddles and logic puzzles, recognizing patterns and making use of reference information scattered around the environment. No padlocks, no combination locks. Instead, doors and drawers were held shut by electromagnetism, and you had to solve puzzles to release the seal.

The production values inside the room were excellent. I've been to a couple of other escape rooms around town now, and this isn't always the case. I've seen as low as "weekend garage sale raid" to as middling as "high school theater" to as sky high as "this must have taken weeks." Denver Escape Room is more in that last category. The Path presented a neat environment full of things to see and do; everyone who did Grim Stacks gushed similarly (as much as they could without spoiling the room's secrets).

The doling out of hints by the room's overseers was also handled well. I've done rooms where the operator too frequently nudges you along, as if they're being paid by the success. Then there are the rooms where you have to ask for help -- which can leave a group too stubborn to admit when they need it. We did get stuck on The Path a couple of times (once over the dumbest thing; it's embarrassing), and the hints arrived with perfect timing. We were allowed to struggle as a group for several minutes, going back over every part of the room and talking through our roadblock together. We had the chance to solve things on our own before getting the push.

Both groups escaped, each with around 15 minutes left in our hour. (The Stacks group was about two or three minutes faster, so they can gloat about that if they want.) But success or fail, I knew after a few minutes that I'd be wanting to go back to try the place again. Perhaps the same large group can get together to swap rooms. Or try this place's unusual head-to-head experience, which allows two teams to actually compete against each other in the same room.

Northglenn isn't my end of town, but this is worth driving there for. If you like escape rooms, check out Denver Escape Room.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Eight Is Enough

I missed Ocean's 8 when it ran in movie theaters earlier this year. Despite my love of heist movies, I really wasn't hearing anybody saying good things about it... or much of anything about it. It slid down to "I'll catch it at home in a few months" status.

Ocean's 8 is the reboot/sequel to the Ocean's Eleven trilogy. This time, an all-female team led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett are planning a jewel heist during the prestigious Met Gala. All the trappings you'd expect from heist movies (and from the Ocean's series in particular) are there, from recruiting the team, to planning the caper, to dealing with complications, to the secret twist in the plan the audience doesn't get to see until the end.

Indeed, the movie follows the Ocean's formula a bit too slavishly. The film starts with Bullock's Debbie Ocean at a parole hearing that sees her released from prison, exactly as the original film starts with George Clooney. The banter between Bullock and Blanchett is styled just like that between Clooney and Brad Pitt (and Blanchett's role in the heist is even possibly a nod to Pitt's decision to eat in every scene of the original film). There's a revenge angle to the caper, just as in the original. It's not all one-for-one, but it is too close for comfort.

The cast is doing their level best. Bullock and Blanchett are great top-liners, exuding cool and collected "smartest person in the room" vibes from beginning to end. The team they recruit is full of talented actresses definitely having fun with their roles -- though they're often having to do heavy lifting for characters that aren't especially well drawn. The two standouts are Anne Hathaway and Sarah Paulson. Hathaway broadly plays an egomaniacal movie star and is given scenery-chewing moments to match. Paulson is fun as a suburban mom whose booming business as a fence provides fun comedy moments.

On the other end of the scale, Helena Bonham Carter feels wasted as a washed-up fashion designer; Carter's career is marked with countless bold characters, yet this movie feels like it never gives her the chance to spread her wings. Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, and Rihanna all feel like they fade into the middle somewhere. They get a few moments, but these feel sure to be forgotten in a few weeks' time as the movie evaporates from memory.

Ocean's 8 is actually not a "bad" movie at all. It's fun enough to watch, even if it slows down in parts. But you also get occasional glimpses of how great a movie might have been with this assembled talent. I'd call Ocean's 8 maybe a B-, but that could be generous thanks to my soft spot for the caper genre.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Family Drama

I'd heard good things about the thriller Hereditary, released earlier this year. I got around to seeing it for myself at an appropriate time for a scary movie -- the night before Halloween.

Hereditary is a tough film to explain, as much of its charm comes in not knowing what could happen next. Most would call it a horror movie, though it isn't a slasher. The chills are mostly psychological and creepy (but, admittedly, with a few choreographed jumps). It focuses on a family of four: a husband and wife, their high-school-aged son, and their 13-year-old daughter. The film focuses on Annie, the mother, who has just lost her own mother to dementia. Their relationship was a rocky one even before the disease, so Annie's feelings are complicated. Complicating things more are increasing hints that "dear departed grandma" has left behind a legacy that could unravel the entire family.

This is the first feature film from writer-director Ari Aster, but it doesn't feel like a first effort at all. The storytelling and technique are confident throughout. The camera work is far from simple, with several challenging long takes, clever cutting that often focuses on reactions more than dialogue, and subtle visual effects you can sometimes almost overlook. A recurring visual motif is built upon Annie's job as a miniatures artist. Many scenes inside the family's house are filmed from super-wide angles to present the impression that the audience itself is looking inside a dollhouse.

The chills build slowly. Despite having heard little about the film beyond its quality, I had certain expectations about the type of thing I was going to see. Half an hour in, it had become clear this movie wasn't going to be that. Half an hour more, and it suddenly seemed it was going to be that after all! Near the end, it took a wild turn yet again. (More on that in a moment.) As the movie transitions beyond setup and character building and begins trying to scare in earnest, it does a good job in scene after scene of setting you up to expect the thrill in one way but delivering it in another. It's a well-crafted ride.

The performances are fantastic throughout. Toni Collette plays Annie. Many critics hailed this as the best performance of her career, and they might not be wrong. It's intense and hypnotic and powerfully real, particularly in moments where she delivers long monologues on grief. Gabriel Byrne plays husband Steve, who has perhaps the most secretly challenging role in the movie, bottling up his own feelings for the sake of his wife, then letting them leak through in believable ways. Alex Wolff plays the son Peter, who emerges after many twists and turns as the most sympathetic figure in the movie. The script asks for an incredible range from him, and he always delivers. Then there's young newcomer Milly Shapiro as daughter Charlie. She gives one of the great "creepy kid of horror" performances. (And gets a big assist from the production in emphasizing her unusually adult appearance. My husband commented on her unsettling look that she looked like a face swap.)

I have just two reservations. One has to do with the music and sound design. It's mostly very effective, but occasionally it's more distracting. There's an extreme amount of dissonance in the music, and a lot of bass rumbling in the sound design that's meant to be subliminal but often isn't. The saturation of these elements sometimes makes the film feel like it isn't coming by all its scares "honestly."

Then there's the ending. It's wholly earned, at least, by the way the story has built to it. Yet there's also a bit of a "what just happened?" quality to the final minutes as well. It reminded me some of The Witch, from a few years back, though this movie succeeded in the things that movie failed at from beginning to end.

My reservations don't really bring down my enthusiasm for the whole. I'd give Hereditary an A-. If you're into thrillers, this one really feels like a can't-miss movie to me. It's tense and suspenseful, with moments both powerfully dramatic and powerfully creepy. Great fun to watch curled up under a blanket on the couch.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I Spy

Party games tend to go over well in my circle of friends, because even though we catch games here and there throughout the month, the last Saturday of each month is marked for everyone to gather. Sometimes the group will divide into separate games on those occasions, but often we'll go with old standbys we know can accommodate that many people. Or, in the case of Spyfall, a new party game discovery.

Spyfall has actually been around a while, being popular enough to spawn some expansions and spin-offs. It was still new to our group. The game is played with stacks of cards illustrating various locations (and full of minor details): the beach, a circus, a costume party...dozens of locations in all. To play a round, each player receives an identical illustration card, except for one player who is instead randomly dealt a card marking them as a spy. They don't get to see the picture everyone else does.

A timer is started, and questions begin to ping-pong around the table. Players are trying to ascertain who the spy is; the spy is trying to bluff their way through their lack of information and figure out where they are before time expires. The first player picks somebody and directs a question to them. ("It's kind of noisy here, don't you think?") That player must respond somehow... ("Maybe, but it's all part of the fun!") and then direct a new question to someone else ("Why are you dressed so odd?"). So on and so on, until either time expires, or one player proposes to the group the identity of the spy and gets a majority of the players to agree. OR until the spy, who can see in the center of the table an array of the possible locations, can deduce where they are and announce it to the group.

It's a neat concept, but I felt the game didn't live up to it in execution. There are simply a lot of rough patches and vague fuzziness in the construction, requiring the players to smooth things over for themselves. Just how much is everyone supposed to look at the common array of locations? Isn't it obvious you're the spy when you look at them? Are you suppose to make copies for each player to keep with them? What kinds of questions are we supposed to ask? What if someone doesn't quite get that there's a role-playing aspect to this and asks "what item do you see in the top left corner of your card?"

We played several rounds of Spyfall on that night it was introduced to us, but it never quite felt like it "worked." Unlike say, Resistance, the parameters of the bluffing seemed too ill-defined. "Are you a good guy or a bad guy?" is an easy matter to explain quickly to new players and have them understand. You just get to enjoy the game. There's no awkward period of "are we doing this right?" -- a period that even after several rounds, we never really pulled out of.

Despite good illustrations and production values, Spyfall felt to me like a game that's passed around like an oral tradition. "Oh, someone showed me how to play Spyfall one time. Here, let's all try!" And then they don't quite explain it right, or remember it right. Or in explaining it differently, they introduce a weird corruption in the game that then gets passed around to the next group.

I could believe there's some fun in Spyfall somewhere. It certainly seems popular enough over on BoardGameGeek. But it left me (and I think most of my group) feeling that there are other bluffing party games we prefer a great deal more. I give Spyfall a C.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Book of Momentous Import

When reading books, I like to change things up. Recently, I swung over into non-fiction to check out a biography by author Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. It's there in the subtitle -- it's an account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, centered on his famous "first 100 days."

In actuality, the chronicle of the first 100 days makes up the last third-to-half of the book. The lead-up to that is a background on both Roosevelt himself and on the state of the country at the time of his election. On virtually every page, images are conjured that make for sobering comparisons to today -- sometimes over how far things have come, but just as often how cyclical the wheel of history really is.

Most of the differences surround FDR's polio, which left him confined to a wheelchair and able to "walk" only as a carefully choreographed bit of assisted theatricality. Alter's book explains that contrary to what most people today think, FDR's condition was widely known when he was elected. But he worked hard to project strength in a way that made the people see past it. The press actually assisted in covering for him, collectively agreeing not to photograph him in moments that compromised the illusion and highlighted the truth. It's both an impossible-to-conceive contrast to today (where you know any moment of perceived weakness by a president would be trumpeted far and wide) and somehow familiar (in that the current president broadcasts his own mental and moral deficiencies far and wide every day, and it never undermines him with his supporters).

Alter does an excellent job on conveying the scope of the Great Depression, making the reader understand just how massive it was in a way I at least hadn't fully appreciated. Fully one-quarter of the U.S. population was unemployed, with some cities spiking near twice that rate. Many who were counted as technically employed were in part-time positions that could not pay the bills, or were working unproductive farms in danger of repossession by banks. Failing banks. Banks were going under at such a rate (and wiping out people's life savings as they fell) that 3/4 of the states had closed all banks entirely by the time Roosevelt took his oath of office. This book was a sobering illustration that for all the horrors of our time, there are other kinds of hardships that we today have never known.

In focusing on the initiatives of Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, you might expect the book to be a lionizing love fest for the 32nd president of the United States. On the contrary, Alter makes clear what a callous and political operator he could be. The book spends time on the period between FDR's election and inauguration (which at the time took place in March, not January, leaving a three-month gap after the election). The book explains how President Herbert Hoover tried many times to reach out to FDR for his support in enacting relief for the Depression, and being rebuffed. Hoover didn't want to be seen acting unilaterally in his "lame duck" period, and FDR didn't want to do anything that might actually work and be forced to share credit with Hoover. You could draw parallels to modern politics in several ways -- the pre-election posturing surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, the current president's propensity for self-aggrandizement, take your pick.

But even though Alter takes a "warts and all" approach to FDR, he still manages to deliver what feels like an incomplete book. That's the price of focusing on just the famous First 100 Days. It may be one of the most interesting periods of Roosevelt's presidency, but it amounts to less than 3% of his record time in office. The book's epilogue spends a little time on Social Security, a few paragraphs mention monumental pieces of history like the rise of Hitler and the attempt to pack the Supreme Court. World War II is barely mentioned. And even though the scope of this book means these are deliberate omissions (presumably to distinguish it from the many other biographies of Roosevelt), they feel wrong.

The Defining Moment is a good and informative read, but it comes off like a beautiful table with one of the legs removed. This book covers what may be the defining period of FDR's presidency, but it doesn't feel like the defining biography of the man. I give it a B-.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Profit and Loss

Of all the characters on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you might not expect Quark to have a lot of love interests. But his second of season two came in "Profit and Loss."

Natima Lang, a Cardassian professor of political ethics, comes aboard Deep Space Nine. She's attempting to lead two of her students, prominent dissidents, to safety. But the Central Command is hot on their heels, sending a Gul to bring them in and even enlisting the exiled Garak. The dissidents' only hope is Quark. Natima hopes he'll help because of the romantic relationship they had long ago; he hopes to rekindle that relationship.

This episode is among the less successful of season two, and the creative team acknowledged it. Show runner Michael Piller called it a "disappointment." Ira Steven Behr went into more detail, in part blaming last-minute rewrites. Apparently, the original conception of the story hewed so close to the movie Casablanca (even being titled "Here's Lookin' at You...") that there was real concern about legal action being taken. Behr thought the rewrites, even if necessary, gutted the most worthwhile parts of the episode. He also felt that Quark was made to be too heroic, "another tough, sexy, swashbuckling character on the show" when he ought to have been "Beauty and the Beast, or Woody Allen and every woman he's ever been with in the films."

I certainly don't find Quark to be as heroic here as Behr thinks. Though Quark is more genuinely in love here than he was earlier in the season (in "Rules of Acquisition"), it's a creepy, stalkery kind of love. He strong-arms Natima into staying, ransoming the freedom of her students against her "love," all the while remaining mystified why Natima is less than enthusiastic about rekindling their romance.

At least Natima is a strong character who stands up to Quark for most of the episode. (Her one weak moment comes when she shoots him, then immediately crumbles. I say she doesn't really seem in the wrong for doing it.) Actress Mary Crosby does a lot to emote through the heavy makeup and make the character more charismatic than I think she was on the page.

I think Natima would be a better character still if we had a better sense of what she was fighting for -- specifically, if the two students she was fighting to protect, Hogue and Rekelen, were as compelling as she is. We get a vague idea of the Cardassian political landscape, but we're only told about the potential power of these young students. It seems like we're supposed to regard them like Cardassian versions of people like David Hogg and Emma González, but we see no evidence of it. Hogue and Rekelen remain rather free of any personality at all.

The episode isn't without its moments, though -- mostly because Garak is in it. From his opening scene (verbally sparring with Bashir over Cardassian literary style) to his closing scene (doing the "right thing" maybe for love of country, but probably for hatred of having been double-crossed), we get a parade of great Garak moments. We also get new uses for the character, pairing him with people other than Bashir. He has a great joust with Quark in which "radical fashion" becomes code for radical politics, and another great scene with Sisko in which Garak must threaten by insinuation. If Andrew Robinson hadn't already cemented Garak as a necessary presence on the show, this episode certainly does it.

There are also some fun scenes involving Odo. Though he starts off in a utilitarian role (giving us early exposition about a cloaking device that will be important later), he later actually listens to Quark's honest and emotional plea for help. And he ends up breaking the law to save the dissidents because he feels the law is unjust in this case. Odo is even a fun "presence" in a scene he isn't actually in, when Quark goes banging around in case the shapeshifter might be eavesdropping.

Other observations:
  • We see in this episode that Cardassian neck ridges are apparently as erogenous as Ferengi ears.
  • A fairly significant earthquake hit southern California on an early morning during the production of this episode. Actors in half-finished alien makeup were said to have rushed away from the studio to check on loved ones. The shoot was closed down for two days as all the sets were inspected for damage, and aftershocks continued to affect filming even once it resumed. Perhaps some of the episode's shortcomings can be chalked up to these disruptions?
The considerable charms of Garak (and Andrew Robinson) do a lot to redeem an otherwise lackluster episode. Still, the sum total is rather forgettable. I give "Profit and Loss" a B-.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Confounded Contraption

One situation to be wary of in board games is the "rich get richer" problem: success breeds more success for the player who leaps out ahead, and the trailing players can have a hard time catching up. So it was with some trepidation that I tried out a game that seemed built on this principle: Gizmos.

In Gizmos, each player is trying to build their own "engine" of cards. An array of pieces (each one a card) is placed in the center of the table. Each player works to increase their own pool of energy marbles, in four different colors, which are used to buy from that center pool. On your turn, you either buy a card or take one of the six randomly available energy for your pool.

The game has a strict timing structure, breaking your turn into several phases. It's all meant to foster card combos, not unlike the way deck-building games do. But where it's luck of the draw in a deck builder that determines whether your combo goes off, in Gizmos, all your cards are face up in front of you as you add them to your engine. You're building the most ruthless, repeatable card combo you can manage.

By about halfway into the game, a player who's doing well will often take an elaborate turn. "I'll draft this one red energy from the pool. This card says that when I draft red energy, I get to take a random energy also... and this OTHER card I have says every time I spend red energy, it counts double. Ooo! My random energy was black, and THIS card says that when I get black energy, I get to draft a second energy marble, so now I'll take yellow. Ooo, and by the way, THIS card lets me spend yellow as blue, so man, I'm going to have a REALLY good turn next time."

Oh, NEXT time?

To be certain, there is something deeply satisfying about this game. Strategizing your own engine and finding new cards that slot perfectly into it makes you feel damn clever. Taking a turn where 5 of your cards all work in tandem is pretty fun. And since combos are what the game is all about, everyone is going to reach a point where they've got some pretty fantastic stuff going on.

But it's also hard not to get combo jealousy of other players. The randomness of available energy and available new cards do mean that, strictly speaking, the rich may not inevitably get richer in this game. The engine you've built may not interact particularly well with what's available when your turn comes around. One could be debate whether this is solving one problem by introducing another. If you're the sort of person who thinks Puerto Rico has too much randomness (because plantation tiles are drawn randomly), you're going to have a hard time accepting this.

It's entirely possible -- likely even -- that this game is never going to feel "fair" to a lot of people. But at the same time, it's true that the act of building a huge card combo and watching it go off at least every other turn is pretty good for the endorphins. So I'm very much of a mixed mind on this game. I think it's not one I'd seek out again. But it's also fairly short, so I think I'd be up for playing it again if it were suggested.

For me, I think I'd call it maybe a B-. I could see other gamers reacting quite differently to it -- both more favorably and more negatively. Hopefully, I've given you enough to know if Gizmos is right for you.