Friday, January 20, 2017

Gladwell Done

I've recently been listening to the podcast Revisionist History, following a strong recommendation from a close friend. If anything, he didn't speak of it highly enough.

Revisionist History comes from Malcolm Gladwell, and if you're familiar with his work, that may be all you need to know to go check it out. If you're unfamiliar with Gladwell's clever and insightful writing on human nature -- his study-backed examinations of sociology and psychology -- let me try to sell you.

This podcast, in the words of its host, is about things "overlooked and misunderstood." The title suggests a look back into the past, but that's only part of the story here. Gladwell is clearly interested in the here and now; the episodes that dig into history typically do so as analogy for the present day. This is a podcast that educates in an attempt to break that old adage that "history repeats itself." The 10-episode first season was completed months ago, and I'm still working my way through them. But so far, each episode has been as fascinating as the last.

Right out of the gate, episode one takes on the glass ceiling, telling the story of a breakout artist in the 19th century who became one of the first women to be taken seriously in the British art world. Gladwell explains how "moral licensing" kept other women from following in her footsteps, and even brought her career to a premature end. (He also draws parallels to women in modern politics, material that plays much differently today than when the episode was first released in June.)

Subsequent episodes delve just as deeply into a variety of fields. A look at spies and information gathering from the Vietnam war gives context for why "intelligence failures" happen. A look at professional basketball exposes how the best way of doing something doesn't necessarily rise to the top of the heap. Education in America is the focus of a three-part run of episodes in the middle of the season.

Each episode is enlightening, engaging, end entertaining. The only thing that has kept me from devouring them is the knowledge that then I won't have any more until a second season rolls around. But it's definitely a new favorite for me, a show I heartily recommend. Revisionist History is a top-notch, grade A piece of work.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Plane Spoken

The Oscar nominations still haven't been announced, but enough of the precursor awards have made their nominations that the likely landscape is taking shape. One movie that now seems to be on the margins is Sully, the tale of airline pilot "Sully" Sullenberger and his emergency landing on the Hudson River. It was a headline so omnipresent that everyone knows the story, and that presents an interesting challenge for this film adaptation.

There's little point in spending a whole movie on pre-emergency Sully leading up to the crash. Nor would it work to start with the Hudson River landing and then let all of the tension out of the film in the hour to follow. So scriptwriter Todd Komarnicki made the decision to tell the story out of order. Post-crash investigations are shuffled together with fragments of the event itself, which is gradually unfolded from different perspectives. Brief flashbacks to a much younger Sully are also stitched into the patchwork. The results do work, to some extent. It is remarkable how events you know well (and have even seen earlier in the movie) can play out with taut suspense. Credit the skillful directing and tight cutting of Clint Eastwood.

But Komarnicki's script and Eastwood's directing have some flaws as well. Like Eastwood's last movie, American Sniper, it seems not to be enough to show someone displaying heroism in the course of "just doing their job." They have to be persecuted too; the movie is almost aiming at deification. Much of Sully's scant 90-minute run time is devoted to a witch hunt looking to railroad Sully for his ostensibly bad judgment. It does work as a story point, but it's hit on awfully hard for not really being the emotional core of the tale.

That core is how seriously Sully takes his role safeguarding the lives of his passengers. And unfortunately, the shuffling around of the narrative delays any real examination of this until quite deep in the film. The "big moment," if you will, comes when Sully learns whether there were any casualties in his emergency landing, and that comes more than 2/3rds of the way into the movie. This might not be as noticeable as it is were it not for the phenomenal acting of Tom Hanks. In many ways, the scene echoes Hanks' amazing work at the end of Captain Phillips, perhaps being even more impressive in being more subtle and straitjacketed. In any case, the scene gives the movie a shot of emotional adrenaline that propels it into a moving final act. But by that point, the audience has had a bit too long to drift into a place of wondering "what's the point of all this?"

The movie otherwise balances elements on opposite sides of the scale. There's a deep cast of great actors including Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, and more... but outside of Aaron Eckhart, no one but Hanks really has much to do. The visual effects are quite convincing, but the music is a bit over the top. And so on, pluses and minuses.

All told, I'd say it works out to around a B-. Tom Hanks again proves how great an actor he is, but I can otherwise understand if the film gets left out of the Oscar hunt.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Patriot

I don't know that I was needing an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to fill in Director Mace's back story and reveal a secret he's been hiding, but that's just what we got this week. Fortunately, it turned out to be a decent installment that gave some of the main cast opportunities for interesting scenes.

First, that big reveal: Mace isn't actually an Inhuman, but a photogenic tool of Talbot's, given super-strength in small bursts thanks to a drug. In particular, Mace doesn't even seem to have a particularly distinguished military career aside from being lucky in one place at one time. All this explains his ineffectual and convoluted "motivational poster" style leadership throughout the season, and gives new context to his keeping everyone at a professional distance (lest they get close enough to learn his secret).

We also learned, though, that Mace is well meaning at the bottom of it all -- actually a team player, and with one honed skill: smiling wide and lying through his teeth. Coulson plans to make use of this, while taking back control of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations for himself. This concludes the mini-arc of "Coulson out of power," but I doubt it puts an end to this season's trend of "Coulson in the field." After all, there doesn't really seem to have been a resolution of that mini-arc for Coulson, no particular lesson he learned during his time out of the director's chair. So I assume they'll keep going with what has worked so far, showing us a Coulson that's more of a man of action.

The LMD May remained in play this week, parallel with the story line of May as Radcliffe's prisoner. Here, the writers fleshed out the details of what's going on a bit more, revealing that LMD May had no knowledge of her real identity, thinking herself the genuine article and acting accordingly. At least, until the episode's tag. This seems to tee up a great episode for actress Ming-Na Wen. Thus far, she's had no reason to play the LMD any differently than she usually plays May, but now the decoy is in on her own secret. It will be interesting to see how this shades the performance.

Fitz and Simmons were the other major subjects of the episode, both individually and as a couple. Simmons-with-a-backbone is just the norm now, so much so that it's almost hard to remember how less self-assured a character she was back in season one. Her scenes standing up to Talbot and conning the Watchdog prisoner were both fun.

Fitz was a bit harder to appreciate this week, or at least to understand. I look forward to future episodes that hopefully reveal his thinking more. Yes, he's always been an "egghead" enticed by cool new science things, but it's hard to imagine what he's thinking in pursuing research on beheaded Aida. He's previously lied to Simmons about Aida, gotten in a bit of hot water, but then been forgiven. To then repeat the pattern undermines the sort of devotion to Simmons that we've seen before -- say, in rescuing her from an alien planet during season three, to name but one example. This feels like a plot convenience more than legit character behavior; I'm hoping that the writers reveal a greater justification down the road, beyond just "he likes tech." (Or "he is also an LMD.")

At this point, the pace of the overall LMD story line seems to be faster than the Ghost Rider arc earlier in the season. And while I think it hasn't yet produced an outstanding episode, it has kept up a compelling level of interest. I give "The Patriot" a B.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Final Problem

"The Final Problem" was the last episode of Sherlock's fourth series (and possibly the last episode of the show, period). While many of the elements were on display that have made Sherlock so enjoyable over the years, I nevertheless found it a disappointing episode -- an unfortunate note to go out on, if indeed it is the final one.

SPOILERS, people! The nature of this episode is simply too tricky to talk about without them.

This story revolved around the lost Holmes sister, Eurus, and her Moriarty-like efforts (aided from beyond the grave by Moriarty himself) to force her brothers into a series of sadistic games. Along the way, Sherlock uncovers long-buried memories about the sibling he didn't know he had.

First, let's start with what worked. As always, such a list begins with the performances of the main actors. Sadly, Martin Freeman was given little of import to do in this episode, but Benedict Cumberbatch was stellar as always with his machine gun delivery. This episode in particular provided many moments running counter to the notion that Sherlock is a purely uncaring sociopath. Cumberbatch did a good job integrating these glimpses of humanity (more than ever before) in a way that blended naturally with the character we've known all along.

Sian Brooke, the actress who played Eurus, was also excellent. She was called upon her to play everything from black-hearted villain to emotionally hollowed-out child, and she nailed all these moments. Also a pure delight was the return of Andrew Scott as Moriarty. He was a garnish this time rather than the main course, but his every moment was an answer to the show's playful question: "Miss me?" Yes!

Yet the story itself was a rickety tower of implausible conceits. Any one of them could have been overlooked in a reasonable suspension of disbelief, but the overwhelming whole of them was simply too much to swallow. Sherlock and John decide that the best way to confront Mycroft about the secret Holmes sibling is to stage a waking nightmare? How exhaustive are the "in the event of my death" recordings left behind by Moriarty and Mary Watson?

Then there was the ever-expanding ridiculousness of Eurus. She has a Kilgrave-adjacent power to instantly enslave any "normal" she speaks with? And this is the best she can dream up to do? She can leave her captivity any time she chooses (and indeed does slip out to London for occasional fun), yet decides to go back to prison afterward? She orchestrated all of this over a period of years just because she really wanted a hug? I did compliment Sian Brooke's performance a moment ago, but she really shouldn't have had to play such an inconsistent hodgepodge of scenes in the first place.

I was also disappointed in the scenes of great import that were subsequently ignored or undone. 221B Baker Street was destroyed in an explosion... but rebuilt in a quick montage. Sherlock was forced to say "I love you" to Molly Hooper... but we saw none of the consequences of that. The writing seemed to want to make big moves for the future, but had to hedge its bets on there never being a future, should Cumberbatch and Freeman elect not to return for more episodes.

Within any given scene were fun moments to remind you that even "bad Sherlock" is better than most television: John and Sherlock's advice to each other to approach their situation as soldiers; Mrs. Hudson taking pleasure in Mycroft's role as a regular client; replacing the graffiti and bullet holes on the wall of the restored Baker Street flat. Yet I was still left not completely satisfied.

I'd grade "The Final Problem" a B-. On the one hand, I want there to be more Sherlock so they can leave things on a higher note. On the other, they knew there was a chance this could be end forever, and this was the best they could muster; maybe best now just to leave it alone.

Monday, January 16, 2017

One Christmas Night

I haven't done so well the past few years with watching Christmas-themed movies around Christmas time. But I did get in one this season (from the previous Christmas). The Night Before follows three childhood friends, all now living different adult lives, in their quest to spend one last party-hard Christmas Eve together.

This isn't quite a stoner movie, but it is stoner adjacent. (Well, alright -- one of the characters is on drugs for basically the entire film.) This is one of those movies about the comedic premises of the scenes more than the plot. It's about finding where the line is, then boldly diving over it. It works (or doesn't) on the interplay between the characters (and their actors).

The trio in this case is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie. And while they do have a decent rapport with one another, it's everyone else in the movie that really gets the laughs. Lizzy Caplan displays dry wit as Diana, the ex-girlfriend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Ethan. Jillian Bell is great as the wildly understanding wife of Seth Rogen's Isaac (and she absolutely kills it during a particularly great dream sequence). Lorraine Toussaint is hilarious as the alternately clueless and clued-in mother of Anthony Mackie's Chris. Then there's the parade of more expected comedy performers: Mindy Kaling, Jason Mantzoukas, Jason Jones, and James Franco all score decent laughs.

But the funniest moments in the film come from two people you wouldn't expect. Miley Cyrus does a great send-up of herself in a cameo appearance. And then there's Michael Shannon, best known for ultra-serious dramatic performances. Here he channels his intimidating intensity into a role as a guru/marijuana dealer, and he steals every scene he's in.

Of course, the flip side of a movie in which the funniest stuff comes from where you don't expect is that the rest of the movie isn't really as funny as it should be. Though it does have good moments, The Night Before isn't really as outrageous, as irreverent, as wild as it would like to be. Perhaps some level of sentimentality is just part of the Christmas movie formula, but it's a part I think could have been jettisoned more in this case.

I'd give The Night Before a B-. It would have been good enough to be one of a few Christmas movies to watch in December. I did it wrong by having it be the only Christmas movie I watched. Next time around, I'll have to do better.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Fun for the Whole Family.... Er, We Mean, Your Rowdy Drinking Buddies!

I was recently introduced to a game that's a real textbook example of the power of branding.

Wonky is a Jenga-esque game in which players are each trying to play out their hand of cards first. Each card (with varying degrees of specificity) instructs a player to take one of nine cubes (of different sizes and colors) and stack it atop a growing communal tower. The cubes are imperfectly shaped on purpose to add to the challenge. If you knock the blocks over, you draw multiple cards to bloat your hand, and the tower begins anew.

Thanks to BoardGameGeek, I learned that Wonky was originally released in 2015 as a family game --  complete with an over-excited nuclear family grinning on the back of the box. But the version I played, rebranded and released in 2016, was Wonky: The Unstable Adult Party Game. A tissue-thin fiction had been draped over it all (something about being scientists working with unstable elements).

More significantly, the entire thing had been turned into a drinking game. Knock over the tower, and you take a drink. Also, you flip over a "new rule" card affecting the entire group -- no using your dominant hand, everyone has to talk in a silly accent, and so forth. As a maximum of three such rules accumulate, the game can get increasingly goofy.

Wonky isn't much of a game, to be sure. But if you're simply measuring it as a "drinking game," the evaluation is rather different. The simplicity becomes a feature. The stupidity leads to drinking, which leads to laughs. The only problem really becomes that if you all get too sloppy drunk, the game could conceivably never end. That is, assuming you even care about "ending" it "by the rules" at that point.

Maybe even as a drinking game, it's not tops. I think I'd rather have Happy Salmon with my shots, for example. But Wonky made for a reasonable diversion on New Year's Eve night. I'd call it maybe a B-. Probably, most people either fit in the category of "don't need a game as an excuse to drink and have fun" or "gaming is the fun, not the accessory to drinking." But there's a certain Venn diagram in there somewhere that might enjoy Wonky on its own (redefined since original release) terms.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bored of the Apes

Certain kinds of summer blockbuster movies demand that you lower your expectations before watching them. I tried to do that with the recent The Legend of Tarzan, and still managed to be disappointed.

One creative decision the movie made correctly is to spare us an unnecessary origin story. For the two people unaware that Tarzan is a wild man raised in the jungle by apes, the movie injects a few short flashbacks. Otherwise, it's a new story that picks up after Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, has repatriated to England to live a normal life. But the King of Belgium has his eye on the diamonds of the Congo, and Tarzan decides to return there in the hopes of exposing a massive slave operation.

Pretty much nothing about this movie works. There's tons of plot, reasonable (if simple) character motivations, and several set piece action sequences. None of it is even slightly engaging, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, a lot of the actors here seem to be slumming it. Christoph Waltz has built a career on conniving and charismatic villains, and here is tapped to play the despicable Captain Rom. But Rom is a cartoonish figure that tries to combine mastermind and henchman all in one silly package -- he's both Goldfinger and Oddjob, depending on the scene, and compelling as neither. Samuel L. Jackson is no stranger to pulpy movies, and seems to be intended here as comic relief. But the name of his character, George Washington Williams, is about as funny as he ever gets. Jim Broadbent for some reason plays the British Prime Minister, though I can see nothing in the role that should have enticed him to take it.

Then there's the problem of how unreal everything seems. Unconvincing CG is piled high in this film; environments look like paintings, animals seem disconnected from their surroundings, and nothing moves with the right sense of weight. In sharp contrast, the animals of Disney's The Jungle Book were shown speaking English, yet still seemed more realistic than anything here.

Even if you're just watching to ogle good-looking stars Alexander Skarsgård and/or Margot Robbie, you're likely to be disappointed. Skarsgård doesn't go "full Tarzan" until more than halfway through the film, Robbie is playing a no-verve version of Karen Allen's Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the two together as a couple have zero chemistry.

The Legend of Tarzan is the sort of movie that makes you wish for dumb. "So bad it might be good" would be a vast improvement over this incredible tedium. I give the movie a D-.