Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Sounds of Ultron

One aspect of The Avengers: Age of Ultron that I didn't mention in my original review was its score. That's a story unto itself -- though one where I'm missing some of the details.

Months before the film's release, it was announced that Brian Tyler would be composing its music. For score enthusiasts, this was both surprising and not. The first Avengers had a solid score by Alan Silvestri, so it was odd that he wasn't returning for the next installment. On the other hand, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed composers quite often. And putting Brian Tyler (who had previously done Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) on Age of Ultron already made for more musical continuity than Marvel typically had in the past.

Then the first poster for the movie came out, and eagle-eyed fans immediately noticed a credit of "Additional Music by Danny Elfman." In the finished film, this went one step farther; Brain Tyler and Danny Elfman are both given standard "music by" credit. What appears to have happened is that someone on the film (likely a Marvel producer) disliked Tyler's submitted score -- but not so much to toss it out entirely. Why Marvel was willing to pay Danny Elfman's presumably high price tag when they hadn't paid Alan Silvestri's in the first place is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps Silvestri turned them down for reasons other than money? (Joss Whedon has certainly been implying that Marvel movies are an increasingly difficult place for creative types to work.)

Whatever really went on behind the scenes of Age of Ultron, the result is an interesting score that represents the work of three composers. Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman each wound up on roughly half the movie, and each of them also repurposed the "Avengers theme" written by Alan Silvestri for the first film. Yet where you might expect that to yield a schizophrenic end product, the three sounds all blend together pretty well. You'd have to be a real film music nut (more even than me) to guess who wrote which cues, and you'd probably still get it wrong some of the time.

Generally speaking, Brian Tyler gets more of the action music. His "Avengers: Age of Ultron Title" opens the soundtrack album with a fast, frenetic piece that builds a sense of dread. He toys with wild sprays of jungle percussion in "Hulkbuster" and "The Vault," pulsing bass in "The Mission" and "Soeul Searching," and majestic choir in "Rise Together." Still, he's not high octane all the time. He plays with a slow, almost James Bond sort of vibe in "Breaking and Entering," and amorphous, free time music in "Birth of Ultron" and "Vision."

Danny Elfman (again, generally speaking) gets more of the music with emotional heft. His track "Ultron / Twins" brings an almost gothic quality to the former character, and a distinctly Russian tone to the latter two. He uses acoustic guitar in an unabashedly sentimental way for "Farmhouse" and "The Farm." And it's his reworked version of the Silvestri Avengers melody that soars most often throughout the album, on "Heroes," Avengers Unite," and "It Begins" (the last of which is vaguely reminiscent of Elfman's Batman work, if you strain to listen for it).

The Age of Ultron soundtrack serves up a lot of pulse-pounding, triumphant tracks, but with just enough subtly deeper work to make it stand out a bit from other action fare. I give the album a B+.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Six Heroes Who Aren't the Avengers

Pixar Studios is currently in a bit of a slump; their last few movies have been merely good, after a long streak of excellence. Ironically, their parent company has been the one to step up to fill their gap. Disney had commercial and creative hits with Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, and most recently added Big Hero 6 to that list.

Superhero origin movies are rather commonplace these days, but Big Hero 6 manages to be one of the best of them. It sort of sneaks up on that aspect, even more subtly than say, Batman Begins. At least half the movie has unfolded before anyone dons a costume. By that point, a strong emotional grounding has been established, giving a reason and weight to the superheroics.

That grounding builds on the tradition of Disney films like Bambi and The Lion King, in that it depicts some truly dark tragedy. Young Hiro Hamada is struggling to cope with a profound loss, and turns to the innocent, child-like robot Baymax for help. Their pairing is a powerful core around which the movie is built. Relative newcomer Ryan Potter gives a great performance as Hiro, being far more relatable than many teenagers on film. Animation veteran Scott Adsit (though you may know him from 30 Rock) is hilarious as Baymax, working within the robot character's one-note programming to give an impressively nuanced performance.

The rest of the titular "6" are definitely less developed characters, but the voice actors do inject a lot of fun into their roles. Perhaps because I watch(/ed) both Silicon Valley and Happy Endings, I felt that T.J. Miller and Damon Wayans Jr. overshadowed Genesis Rodriguez and Jamie Chung just a bit. Still, I could see any of these secondary characters being a favorite of any given audience member. Also in the cast are Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, and Disney animation regular Alan Tudyk -- each of them refreshingly cast a bit off type from what you might expect in a live-action film.

The visual design is just as strong as the story. It's all set in the fictitious city of San Fransokyo, which cleverly combines many Japanese elements with the distinct vibe of the sloped, tightly packed City by the Bay. There are also many triumphs of animation, from the eye-catching motion of the villain's army of "micro-bots," to the more clever work that lends humanity to the physically limited character of Baymax.

I give Big Hero 6 an A-. In fact, it earns a slot high in my Top 10 list of 2014 movies. With as many hits in a row now as Pixar has had relative misses, I look forward to Disney's next film with great anticipation.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Gift

I feel compelled to start near the end of this week's Game of Thrones episode, with the moment that made me want to stand up and cheer: Daenerys and Tyrion finally met! This is a moment of gratification that the books still stubbornly delay, making the development on the show even sweeter.

Perhaps the decision to move this meeting forward was part of the reason Barristan was killed prematurely a few episodes back? That death leaves Dany an empty position in the "wise councilor" department that Tyrion can potentially fill -- though of course he'll have to use that silver tongue of his to avoid a vengeful execution at her hands. Show Dany is flirting much more with her darker side than Book Dany was at this point. She's talking about continuing her relationship with Daario even after her marriage, something Book Dany expressly discontinued. (And in doing so, she also made a symbolic break with all his violent ideas.) What Dany will do with Jorah is also a very open question. It all makes for the biggest "can't wait for next week" moment the show has served up all season.

There were other intriguing departures from the books, though they were more subtle by comparison. Sam is long gone from the Wall by this point in the books, on a long journey south with Gilly and Aemon. It turns out that this was a far safer place for him to be than still up at the Wall! As was pointed out to Sam (callously, at Aemon's funeral), all his friends are leaving him. Well, all but Ghost (who didn't go with Jon?!). But even if Sam wasn't on a heroic quest this week, he had a few key heroic moments -- dealing with the loss of a mentor, and stepping up to try to defend Gilly.

Melisandre took a major turn this week too. A Dance With Dragons gave us one odd chapter from her perspective, which seemed mainly about telling the readers that she's sincere in all her beliefs, and that she truly does mean well. That seems quite a contrast with her asking Stannis to offer up his own daughter as a sacrifice! And Stannis' reaction seemed remarkably tame, less than the total rejection of the idea and Melisandre herself that it really ought to have been. Dark times ahead for these two, it appears.

In the Sansa/Theon storyline, it was the lack of a major turn that was the big development. In the books, Theon slowly pulls out of his Stockholm Syndrome one chapter at a time (in one of the book's more satisfying threads). Here, it appeared at first that Sansa single-handedly pulled Theon back from ruin to use him in her rescue. (Which would have been a great moment for her, coming on the heels of the outrage last week's episode generated online.) But no such luck. That Theon remains Ramsay's creature was the surprise for book readers, leaving us to speculate just how Sansa will get out of her predicament.

It's equally unclear how things are going to develop in Dorne -- though I think in this case, not in a good way. The brief conversation between Jaime and Myrcella was less than satisfying. And what was the point of poisoning Bronn just to immediately cure him? (My best guess, to foreshadow a more permanent poisoning in the weeks ahead?)

Lady Olenna continued to do what she does best, verbally sparring with first the High Sparrow and then Littlefinger. Every scene with her is a delight, even though she's failing to get the upper hand at the moment. (Though the implication was that Littlefinger told her about Lancel, and she in turn brought him to the Sparrow's attention.)

The thread most likely to elicit cheers from non-book-readers was Cersei's comeuppance. After a scene with Tommen that pointedly foreshadowed the end of episode, and one last scene of Cersei in power (as she gloated to Margaery), the High Sparrow sprang his trap on her. For a man who claims only to be doing the will of the gods, he certainly seemed to enjoy toying with and ensnaring Cersei. He's a sort I'd like to see brought low at some point too. But for now, he brings us Cersei's downfall, which is enough to make us like him.

Overall, this episode was much more about setting things up than paying them off, but that's bound to change starting next week. I'd give the episode a B+ overall.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chemical Reaction

In the board game Alchemists, players take on the role of potion makers and academics. They compete against each other to discover the magical properties of different potion ingredients, and race to publish their findings. It's an interesting and flavorful setting, and it's supported by an intriguing sales pitch of mechanics. It's a deduction game crossed with a worker placement game! It has a clever smartphone app to adjudicate the players' deduction process! But in my opinion, Alchemists is a suspect brew of ingredients that don't really go together.

The two core game styles that this game combines are too much at odds with each other. A good worker placement game puts the players in a race they cannot win. There are more things you want to do in a single round than you actually can do. You have more plans for rounds to come than there are actually rounds left in the game. You have to make tradeoffs, and you have to weigh those tradeoffs against your best guesses about what your opponents will do. On the other hand, a deduction game isn't about managing the journey, it's about the destination. There's an answer out there. Opponents have limited ways to thwart your investigation (if, indeed, any at all). All the tools to find the solution are at your disposal.

Alchemists exposes all the friction between these two systems. It's a worker placement game in which turn order matters. A lot. In fact, the placement of your opponent's workers can cut off your attempts to "solve the mystery" of the ingredients. In a pure worker placement game, that might be a fun part of the challenge. In a game of deduction, I found it frustrating.

The game lasts just six rounds, which I also found annoying. Most deduction games last until the mystery is solved. (Mystery Express is another example of a limited-turns deduction game, and the fact that some games end without anyone completely solving the murder is part of my reticence about it.) Alchemists is deliberately engineered to always end without any player complete solving the "mystery" of what the eight ingredients all do. Again, in a worker placement game, not getting to do all you want to is part of the fun. But to play a game of deduction where the puzzle is deliberately unsolvable? Maddening.

If six rounds played out as breezily as it sounds, I might still find it in myself to enjoy Alchemists. But in its actual pace, it reminds me of a quite different game: Dungeon Lords. You place workers just six times in that game too... but the game still takes an hour-and-a-half (or even two hours, with some players). Alchemists is the same; a round takes around 15-20 minutes to play out. But where you can spend your down time planning in a game like Dungeon Lords, in Alchemists, I just found myself stewing in my own frustrated inability to fully investigate the puzzle.

What it really comes down to is this. Alchemists isn't actually a deduction game -- at least, not to the degree that it could satisfy a lover of such games like myself. It's really just a worker placement game, with an unconventional "risk" to be mitigated. Judging from the rave reviews on Board Game Geek, this is satisfying a lot of players. Me, I think it's neither fish nor fowl, in a most unsatisfying way.

I've only played Alchemists a couple of times, and I'll acknowledge that it hasn't yet reached a point where I'd actually refuse to play it. But I do feel like there are better choices. If I want to play a deduction game, I'll push for the far superior (and faster) Sleuth or Code 777. If I want a worker placement game, I have countless choices, even within the subgenre of "a limited number of rounds." (I love Dungeon Lords.) I'd give Alchemists a D+. It's simply not two things that taste great together. It's a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.

Friday, May 22, 2015

TNG Flashback: Aquiel

"Aquiel" may be the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about a coalescent organism, but pretty much nothing else about the episode coalesced.

Investigating an abandoned subspace relay station, the Enterprise crew finds evidence of a murder. Geordi begins going through the logs of the presumed victim, a Lieutenant Aquiel Uhnari. But when Lieutenant Uhnari is found alive by a Klingon ship, presumptions are upended -- she begins to look like the culprit rather than the victim. Complicating matters are her inability to remember what happened on the station, and her emerging romance with Geordi.

Reading behind the scenes stories about the creation of this episode, it becomes apparent why it's rather flat in execution: nobody really seemed to know what they wanted. Showrunner Jeri Taylor apparently first pitched the idea of giving Geordi a recurring love interest. She was concerned that the only committed couple on the show, the married O'Briens, had just left for Deep Space Nine. With no "attached" main characters, The Next Generation seemed to be unintentionally sending the message that long-term relationships were rare or not valued in the future.

But then Michael Piller made a suggestion to mimc plot elements from the classic 1944 film Laura, and have Geordi fall in love with a woman he first assumes to be dead. The writing staff, generally feeling that the series had never solidly executed a mystery episode, got behind the idea. But in laying out that story, the character of Aquiel transformed from long-term love interest to cold-blooded killer: she was indeed going to be responsible for the murder. Suddenly, the writers worried that they'd wound up in a place too similar to the then-recent film Basic Instinct, so they scrambled to resolve their mystery in another way. Dismissing Aquiel's crewmate Rocha and the Klingon character of Morag as "too obvious," they finally landed on the idea of making the killer be the dog.

By this point, the core idea that once motivated this episode was sufficiently lost in the weeds that no good episode could likely result. The finished script reflects a lot of these flaws. We don't get any sense of what it is about Aquiel's messages that rouses Geordi's interest in her. Consequently, he comes off as a bit of a creep in his pursuit of her, the way he sadly seems to be with every love interest he pursues.
The episode works too hard trying to present Aquiel as a potential femme fatale who might be out to kill Geordi. It doesn't work hard enough to make credible suspects of the people the writers had dismissed, especially the only-seen-on-camera-in-a-blurry-computer-photo Rocha. The ending awkwardly writes Aquiel off to some other adventure, so as to specifically not leave Geordi a recurring love interest.

The already shaky story got even worse when it went before the cameras. Actress Renée Jones is woefully flat as Aquiel, stilted and unnatural. Worse for the romance angle, she has absolutely no chemistry with LeVar Burton. You get the distinct impression that the script played faster than anticipated, because there are lots of awkward pauses in the way the episode is edited together -- gaps in dialogue, and odd silences at the ends of scenes. Plus, the visual effects are pretty terrible. The quivering jell-o that kinda-sorta attacks Geordi in the final act was subcontracted out to another FX house, who delivered their work too late for some much needed touchups that might have better integrated it into the environment.

Other observations:
  • In all the machinations to be like Laura and not like Basic Instinct, the writers wound up aping another movie possibly without even realizing it. The "coalescent organism," which copies living beings and devours the original, is essentially the monster from John Carpenter's The Thing. It even hides as a dog! Interestingly, more than a decade later, episode co-writer Ronald Moore wrote the first draft for what became the 2011 prequel film The Thing. (Though his script was completely re-written, and he ultimately received no credit on the finished film.)
  • Ronald Moore acknowledges the poor result here. In a 1997 AOL chat, in response to being asked what he would have done differently while working on Star Trek, he answered that he would not have written "Aquiel."
  • In the version of the episode where Aquiel was to have been the killer, Geordi was to have ended up owning her dog. A final scene would have had Data visiting Geordi's quarters, noting the dog's bad behavior, and declaring, "Geordi, I think I am a cat person."
This episode is narrowly better than some of The Next Generation's worst. It has a great scene, for example, where Picard manipulates Klingon Governor Torak into helping him. But overall, "Aquiel" is a clear disappointment. I give it a D+.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Winner, By a Nez

In "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez," another Scotland Yard detective, versed (though not as skilled) in Sherlock Holmes' methods, comes to the great detective with a challenging murder mystery. He has done an exhaustive sweep of the crime scene and come up essentially blank. But he has one piece of evidence with deep ramifications: a pair of glasses snatched by the victim from the face of his attacker.

This Sherlock Holmes short story is distinct in at least two ways. First, his "client," Stanley Hopkins, is not a complete fool. Though he is of course no match for the super-sleuth himself, he is not the bumbling idiot that the Scotland Yard inspectors invariably are in the Holmes canon. Hopkins has applied many of Holmes' methods; he's just missed some important details. Moreover, he's not willfully advancing an outlandish theory of the crime. Instead, he simply admits he's stumped.

More interesting about the story is the way that Arthur Conan Doyle has stuffed as much as he can into a single clue, the titular golden pince-nez. Most Holmes tales present three or four details that prove key in cracking the case. A few stories have even more. But this story revolves around just this one pair of glasses, and a rather clever set of deductions that derive from it. Not only do the glasses tell Holmes a great deal about their owner, but the fact that they were taken -- thus seriously impairing the attacker's vision -- puts limitations on just what the attacker could have done after the deed.

Along the way, Doyle serves up a few more character details than he usually includes. We see Holmes put on an unusually charming demeanor during a few suspect interviews, and indulge in some furious chain smoking in the name of investigation. Watson is a bit ahead of his normal game too; instead of being utterly amazed and confounded by Holmes' analysis as he so often is, this time he at least follows the clues to a point -- if not to an ultimate solution.

In all, I was rather pleasantly taken by this story, and give it a B+.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Not-So-Grand Finale

The Battle of the Five Armies was the lackluster end to the mostly underwhelming The Hobbit trilogy. As it was the least effective of the three films, I probably shouldn't be surprised that its soundtrack is similarly disappointing. Composer Howard Shore, after a brilliant start with An Unexpected Journey, and a still-reasonable effort on The Desolation of Smaug, stumbles at the finish line.

The big problem with the score is its lazy reliance on the material established in Shore's five prior Tolkien film scores. Not on specific leitmotifs, mind you; a bit more of that might have actually been welcome. (For example, Shore's themes for Hobbits and the One Ring, established in the original trilogy, make only a few brief appearances.) Instead, much of the music for The Battle of the Five Armies leans on established chords in established keys, without actually finding any melodies to lift them from an often-bland symphonic swamp.

There are moments of interest, here and there, but they rarely last for more than 4 to 8 measures amid otherwise mediocre tracks. The aftermath of Smaug's attack, for example (in "Shores of the Long Lake") seems to make a point of not taking an emotional view at a time the music ought to do exactly that. Are the people of Dale sad at their loss? Happy to have at least survived? The music doesn't want to say, nor does it convey a convincing blend of the two.

Smaug's faintly Middle Eastern theme, introduced in the prior film, is interesting for a while -- in tracks like "Fire and Water" (where it represents the dragon himself) and "Mithril" (where it personifies the corruption of Thorin). But in perhaps a reflection of how long the movie holes up under the Lonely Mountain without much actually happening, Shore runs out of ways to reinterpret that theme in interesting ways.

Fortunately, the battle material itself is more compelling. And as the movie devolves into what feels like an hour-long action sequence, there is at least a fair amount of that kind of music once you've made it through the first half of the soundtrack. "Bred for War" is an attention grabber where different sections of the orchestra seem to engage in a shouting match with each other, building a wonderful din of menace. "Battle of the Mountain" is full of energy, particularly in its bombastic final minute. "Ravenhill" is the all-out pinnacle of the album; the brass virtually scream at the listener, relenting only when the choir steps in.

Actually, it's the use of choir -- throughout the score -- that is the best thing about Shore's work on this film. He plays a lot with the different feelings evoked by male and female voices, from the bass martial cadences of "Sons of Durin" to the apocalyptic creepiness of sopranos in "To the Death." There's also some fun experimentation in the one new theme he creates for this final film, "Ironfoot." No doubt inspired by the casting of Billy Connelly in the role, the character's theme has a distinctly Scottish flavor. In the film itself, I actually found it a jarring break of the fourth wall, in how strongly it evoked a Braveheart vibe. But listening to the music in isolation, I find it to be some of the most inspired work of the soundtrack.

I'm not as moved by "The Last Goodbye," this film's end credits song. Billy Boyd, who played Pippin in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, sings the vocals. But the way it's all crafted feels like it's trying too hard to trade on fond memories of a great sequence in a far better film -- The Return of the King. When Pippin sang in that movie (as Denethor stuffed his face and soldiers perished), it was a haunting and jarring scene. Here the song is inert, trying to express a vague melancholy about the journey's end. I imagine that sentiment was felt by the people who worked on the films, but few audience members actually did.

In all, I'd say The Battle of the Five Armies soundtrack rates an average C. There is a sprinkling of standout moments, but most of it feels like music you already own if you own any of Shore's previous Lord of the Rings or Hobbit soundtracks.