Monday, May 29, 2017

Git Gone and Lemon Scented You

The blog and I have been off for a week, as I've been vacationing in New York City. Tales of that trip to come, but first I feel compelled to not fall any farther behind on the newest Sunday TV obsession -- American Gods.

The episode from a week ago was an interesting one to delay in watching, since is was an entirely Laura-focused, flashback driven episode that painted in the relationship between her and Shadow. It also showed her entire post-death life, leading back to that moment in the motel on the bed. I was drawn to the pre-death chunk of the episode, as it was largely new material to me and others who have read the book. It could be that some of what we saw came from scattered sentences by Neil Gaiman that were assembled into a single plot, but I felt like I was seeing and learning a lot for the first time.

And all the extrapolations/enhancements/additions were very fitting and clever. Of course Shadow and Laura would meet over a blackjack table, and of course he would be in a situation far out of his depth. But most telling of all was how dead inside Laura was before her actual death, a bored and disaffected ghost of a woman not even really all that committed to the idea of suicide. We really got to see how her new "undeath" is more of a life than she's ever had.

That teed things up well for this week's episode (the third to feature Shadow and Laura's meeting in that motel room). This week did more than anything so far to outline the overall narrative -- what the struggle is, who the key players really are, and where the relative power levels stand. Though the episode was full of great performances, two in particular really made the episode stand out to me.

First was Gillian Anderson, who must be having the time of her life playing Media. This week we got two different personae, a David Bowie version and a Marilyn Monroe version. It's interesting to see a fractional continuity between all the incarnations of Media, a commonality that's there even though the bulk of Anderson's performance is given over to the given impression. This week's two characters were cast wonderfully against type for the content of the scene. David Bowie -- ultra-cool, unflappable, put together -- was there for a dressing down of Technical Boy, while Marilyn Monroe -- playful, sexy, joyous, funny -- was there for a scene of threat and menace. Both were wonderfully fun sequences.

The other great performance was Crispin Glover, finally appearing as Mr. World. If you know anything about Crispin Glover's career at all, it's masterful casting. He's a famously moody actor, temperamental to a degree that only A-listers usually get away with (which is, presumably, why he hasn't worked all that much). Perhaps the most well-known example of this is his psychotic, non-verbal assassin character from Charlie's Angels; in the script, the character actually had plenty of dialogue, but Glover refused to say any of it.

Casting Glover in a role as important to the story as Mr. World feels like a risky high wire act without a net. Is he really going to play ball for the open-ended run of an entire TV series, working in the world of writers who clearly have such a crystalized vision of what they want as Bryan Fuller and Neil Gaiman? It's perfect, because there in the scene, Mr. World is all dangerous and powerful, and then there's this extra meta level of menace behind it -- like not quite literally this, but that Glover could snap and any given scene or episode could be his last. He was an instantly magnetic force in the scene and the show.

Of course, there was great work throughout from the rest of the cast too -- Ian McShane was great showing us a Wednesday not calm and in control, Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber made great fun of the confrontation between Laura and Mad Sweeney, Bruce Langley gave us more of the deliciously weaselly Technical Boy, and Ricky Whittle anchored everything as stoic-in-the-face-of-the-insane Shadow.

I watched both episode 4 and 5 back to back, so it's a bit hard for me to separate the two and rate them. But collectively, I think they marked the show really ascending to a still another creative high -- a grade A pair. Clearly, American Gods is the show that'll make the extra three months waiting for Game of Thrones bearable.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Broken Covenant

Over the five years since the movie Prometheus was released, the prevailing opinion of it has grown ever more sour. I liked it well enough at the time... but I also find that today, I can't really remember much about it beyond the oft-cited negatives. I suppose I'd still say it wasn't as bad as people claim, though it would be fair to say it's much farther from good than I first thought it to be.

Alien: Covenant was supposed to be the "apology" movie to get the franchise on track. Instead, the overwhelming majority reaction among the group of seven I saw it with last night was: "I'm never paying to see an Alien movie in the theater again." That might be overstating things a bit, but either way, this new movie is obviously, measurably worse than Prometheus.

For the first 75 minutes or so of the film, it actually feels like an unnecessary retread of Prometheus. It's similarly slow in its opening. It again relies on characters making dumb decisions to create jeopardy (a touch more forgivable here, given that this story features civilians and not scientists, but still...). It too methodically paints in information about the origin of the alien xenomorphs, information that you could have more or less sketched out for yourself if you've seen Prometheus. It feels like a movie you've seen, and not a very compelling one; people were constantly getting up to go to the bathroom or the concession stand during my screening, with no regard to what they might miss.

As a reward for making it that far, you do then get a fairly solid 30 or so minutes of an Alien movie near the end. If you've seen the trailer, it's probably not much of a spoiler to say that the actual xenomorph makes an appearance here -- not merely the "not quite the same thing" version of Prometheus, but the genuine article. And when the creature shows up, the movie gets the shot of adrenaline it needs. There are a few good moments of tension, an exhilarating extended action sequence, and a fun finale that's a sort of an homage to both Alien and Aliens (showing off what can be done with better effects and more money).

But it turns out that there's another valley on the other side of that peak. The movie is packing a twist ending, and I have no reservations in saying so because that ending will be transparent to everyone. Despite the painfully obvious nature of the twist, the movie drags out its reveal; you will figure it out a good 15 minutes before the movie finally "shocks" you. And with each passing minute that the movie doesn't pull the trigger, the less sense the twist actually makes.

Michael Fassbender is acting with everything he's got in this movie, having a hell a lot of fun and overcoming some incredibly difficult technical challenges. It does feel like he's elevating the movie; it's also possible it would be unbearable without him.

A bit to my surprise, when I slipped the movie into my Flickchart, it landed among other movies I've rated a C-. I certainly wouldn't have expected to give Alien: Covenant that high a mark. (Or perhaps that one good chunk of the film was enough to muscle it out of the depths?) In any case, I would tell anyone thinking of seeing it that it's not worth it. Wait to watch it at home later (if at all). And if Ridley Scott comes calling again with another Alien movie, greet the news with great skepticism.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Game With Dromedaries

Camel Up is a clever little game from designer Steffen Bogen that combines mechanics loosely flavored around racing and wagering. It's one of the rare games that really takes the 20-30 minutes it says on the box, and one of the still rarer games that offers satisfying strategy in that brief a time.

The game board is a short race track on which five camel meeples of different colors start. They're hefty components, and designed in a way that whenever two or more are on the same space of the track together, they stack up in a "tower" (with the color on top considered to be ahead). There's one six-sided die to go with each camel, with the faces only numbered from 1-3; these are hidden away in another clever component, a fold up cardboard pyramid with a release mechanism in the top to let out just one die at a time. Whenever a die is rolled, you don't know ahead of time which color it will be, and which camel will move. In addition, if any camels are stacked on top of the color that's rolled, all those camels get a "free move" too, riding along in a stack together.

On your turn, you take one of four actions. First, you can roll a die from the pyramid, claiming 1 point for yourself. Once that die leaves the pyramid, it remains out for the rest of the "round," meaning each camel will get to move at least once.

Second, you may place a token on an empty space of the race track. Each player has one and can only place it once per round, "oasis" side up or "mirage" side up. Once placed, any camel (stack) that lands there is instead pushed forward or backward one space on the race track. (You also score points if you catch any camels this way.)

Third, you can make a short term wager on which camel you think will be leading the pack at the time the current round ends. Each color can only be bid on three times in a round -- the first person to do so gets 5 points if their chosen color is in first at the end of the round, the second 3, and the third 2. Anyone who wagered on the camel that winds up in second at the end of the round gets 1 point. Anyone who mistakenly wagers on a camel any lower than that loses 1 point.

Finally, you may make a long term wager for the end of the game, on which camel you think will finish first and which you think will finish last. Each player has one card for each of the five colors, and makes this end game wager by placing it face down on either the "first" or "last" stack. When each stack of cards is flipped over at the end of the game, you lose 1 point for each incorrect bet, but gain points if you were right. (More points come your way the earlier you are to bet correctly.)

It's a quite straightforward set of rules; while you might better understand them better seeing the pieces and playing a turn or two, I think there's no nuance I've left out of the above description. But from those simple rules arise all the classic moments of a good Eurogame. You have to hedge against a touch of randomness... but it's a constrained randomness with a reasonably limited array of outcomes you can actually process. You have to navigate the decisions of wanting to do multiple things in a limited amount of time. You have to respond to the pressure of opponents who will do the things you wanted to do before you get the chance.

It's rather impressive what Steffen Bogen has fit in a tight little design here. It's not necessarily going to be the "main dish" at a gaming night, but it makes for an excellent side course. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

World's End

The Framework story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been the single best stretch of episodes in the show's history, but it didn't quite stick the (superhero) landing.

I worried last week that the writers had left themselves far too much plot to wrap up in the one episode they had left, and indeed they did. While we did get an ending on almost every point, we didn't necessarily get "closure" -- the pace was too rushed for that. Consequences of several major moments weren't really explored (Fitz watching "Simmons" die in front of him, Mack readjusting to the real world, Robbie having to leave his brother again). And many of the scenes in the episode "started late" without any establishing camera shots or dialogue -- very clearly, an episode that had come in several minutes too long had been reduced to its required running time by chopping off the start of multiple scenes.

Nothing seemed more rushed to me than the sudden, artificial ticking clock that kicked off inside the Framework. Aida's decision to shut down the Framework made sense enough for her character, but was clearly a contrivance to add jeopardy to Yo-Yo's rescue of Mack. Adding an element of danger wasn't a bad notion in and of itself, but it set things up in a way that in the end, there wasn't even really a rescue. Mack's daughter Hope just disappeared on her own, leaving Mack no reason to stay in the Framework anyway. Yo-Yo or no, it seems like Mack story would have resolved the same way, with him ready to leave the Framework of his own volition.

There was a clear effort to unite the season under one big Darkhold umbrella and call back elements of all three season four story arcs. But to me, the older elements felt like they didn't belong. The return of Robbie and the Ghost Rider was an almost literal deus ex machina, a god descending (well... devil rising) from nowhere to take care of the big problem for everyone. There was an intriguing tease that the temporary swap of the Ghost Rider from Robbie to Coulson meant something important, but by choosing to play it for future suspense instead of exploring it now, we didn't really get any emotional weight out of it.

The LMD elements felt even more tacked on. In an episode that already had too many things, we got still one more thing in an LMD Daisy shooting Talbot. The government being after the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hey, that's the name of the show!) was already a thing, so this felt like a throwaway moment to remind us that LMDs were a thing this season. We didn't even actually get a sudden death to be shocked by, as they rather inexplicably declared Talbot to be in a coma despite taking a bullet square in the forehead.

For all the extra elements wedged into the episode, one element felt conspicuously left out -- no one else used Aida and Fitz's machine to transfer from the Framework to the real world. I guess the writers truly never had plans for this; they did destroy the machine in a previous episode with no indication of another one coming, and the basis of their story conclusion (having the Ghost Rider taking personal offense to Aida's existence) probably means the Rider would have wanted to kill anyone else in a constructed human body too. Still, it just seems like such a missed opportunity to do something of huge significance to the show: bring back Ward or Triplet, explore whether Radcliffe could ever do anything to earn trust again, or force Mack to reconcile being a father with a long-term commitment he'd made to S.H.I.E.L.D. and his friends there.

While I may have pointed out a lot of negatives above, though, the episode wasn't without its good moments too. If they weren't going to keep Radcliffe alive somehow, they certainly gave him the most poignant end possible: alone and at last reflective and wistful, denied even the chance to finish his final words. (Great camera shots in that sequence too.) Coulson and May agreed to make up for the loss of that all-important bottle by backing up a bit and finding another bottle to open together when the time was right.

On the more horrific side, we saw Fitz's raw emotion as he watched Aida torture Simmons to death right in front of him. (The impact of that for Fitz felt real, even with the reveal that that Simmons was an LMD.) There were also, as always, plenty of great one-liners, particularly from Coulson: sorry he missed the Ghost Rider/Quake team-up, blase about how the extraordinary is quite ordinary in his world (he has a robot hand, he wakes up in space), and playful about the differences between May and Robot May.

Still, I wish for a finale that had been worthy of what came before it. This was a B- finish to a top notch story arc. Top-notch season, actually, because I'd have to say that even though the opening Ghost Rider episodes weren't my favorite, season four overall was probably the best year of the show to date.

Even though the show was on the bubble in the ratings, we are going to get another year of it. So I guess we'll be back in the fall. Until then...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

General Displeasure

I'd never before seen a classic film featuring silent movie-era star Buster Keaton, and recently decided that this was a "blindspot" I needed to address. I picked what most people seem to regard as his best movie, The General.

Set during the American Civil War, The General is the story of train engineer Johnnie Gray, who longs to join the army (to impress Annabelle, the woman he fancies). He's rejected when he tries to enlist, as the military deems him to be more valuable to the war in his current job. They're proven quite right when enemy spies steal a train (with Annabelle aboard), and Johnnie is the only one around to do anything about it. He single-handedly takes his own engine in pursuit.

Oh, and by the way -- Johnnie supports the Confederacy.

It's truly quite awkward watching The General for this reason. I found it impossible to fully forget that the movie's hero is fighting for the wrong side, and that these villainous spies are actually fighting to end slavery. I found it even more awkward when, after I'd finished the movie, I learned that the story was actually based on a real event, the 1862 "Great Locomotive Chase." In the actual history, the Confederates were the train thieves; it was a Northern civilian who led Union volunteers in a rescue.

Buster Keaton, not only star of this movie but co-writer and co-director, flipped the roles around because he didn't believe his audience would accept Confederates as the bad guys. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked that in 1926, some 60 years after the Civil War, there would be such a lack of understanding about which side was the villainous one. After all, we're now 90-plus years further along, and it seems a distressing number of people still don't get it, and don't know the real reason the war was fought. (This movie won't help them; slavery is never depicted on screen.) Nevertheless, this awkward role reversal of good guys in bad guys, particularly in a light comedy that clearly isn't meant to have any moral ambiguity, made it really hard for any of the movie's charms to affect me.

Very occasionally, they did anyway. Keaton was clearly a masterful physical comedian. Sight gags abound (as you'd expect in a silent film), and it's always evident when he's sharing a scene with another actor just how much better he is at it than everyone else. It's also just amazing to be thrown back to this era when you know that everything you're seeing on screen was done real for the camera -- charging trains, hordes of extras, explosions. This movie actually cost a fortune to make at the time, and its failure to recover that investment essentially marked the beginning of the end of Keaton's career. (Only later would this movie come to be regarded as one of his best.)

But oh man, has this not aged well. (And not just in the way all silent films obviously can't.) You can almost certainly forgive the threadbare nature of the plot as being as complicated a premise as a silent film can really contain. You can maybe  overlook the dim-witted damsel-in-distress as not yet a cliche in a country that had only 6 years earlier afforded women the right to vote. But it's hard to find comedy in the Civil War, especially in someone fighting for the wrong side -- and that should have been blatantly obvious even in 1926.

I give The General a C-. Perhaps I chose the wrong Buster Keaton movie, and perhaps some day I'll try another. But for now, I'm giving it a rest.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Head Full of Snow

This week's episode of American Gods was both an example of what I loved most about Neil Gaiman's novel, and the reservations I had about it.

When I say "what I loved most," I actually mean that literally -- this week's episode contained material from my favorite chapter of the book. Wednesday's "bank robbery"/grift is just delicious in its simplicity and brazenness. I smiled a lot while reading it; I may even have laughed out loud once or twice. The performances here added an extra layer of delight to the sequence, with Ian McShane "playing dumb" as Wednesday, and Ricky Whittle showing how Shadow actually came alive and enjoyed himself as he played along.

But the episode was also the most scattered yet, and this was my biggest reservation about the book. While television is truly the perfect medium for adapting a story that's so "episodic" in nature, this week's installment of the show demonstrates how those episodes (narrative parts) sometimes aren't even enough to fill an episode (hour of television).

This week opened on a vignette about Anubis coming to collect a kindly but uncertain old woman after her death. Then we had the conclusion of last week's visit to the Zorya family. Plus, still another "Somewhere in America" vignette involving a jinn in New York. And the aforementioned bank robbery. Plus the plot thread about Mad Sweeney and his soured luck. There's a lot going on here, and aside from a loose overarcing theme having something to do with "belief," they weren't terribly connected.

That's American Gods -- in book or television form. And the thing is, each one of those disparate pieces is so compelling in its own way that it kind of doesn't matter if it comes off a bit disjointed. Zorya Polunochnaya is mysterious and tantalizing; it's a good story in and of itself. As is Mad Sweeney's cursed run-in with Bryan Fuller alumnus (and former Kid in the Hall) Scott Thompson. As were both of the "Somewhere in America" sequences. And my personal favorite, the snowy bank grift.

I may have a small reservation here and there, but I'm also just thrilled to be watching something artistic and freaky that carries on the torch for the brilliant-but-cancelled Hannibal. And hey, it's not like loads of (what at first seem to be) unconnected plots hurt Game of Thrones. This is another A- episode of American Gods for me. And with the news this week that they've already secured a renewal for season two, we all have plenty more to look forward to.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Loving Criticism

The 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia is one of the more prominent cases in U.S. law. The unanimous verdict struck down anti-miscegenation laws barring interracial marriage, marking another advance for civil rights. (The ruling also figured prominently in the case that struck down same-sex marriage bans decades later.)

The case had previously been chronicled in a documentary, The Loving Story. As much as I appreciated the history, I was lukewarm at best on the film. That left me hopeful for improvement in a new, dramatized take on the tale released last year, a movie simply titled Loving. Unfortunately, I felt like it missed the mark even more than the documentary.

This new movie came from writer-director Jeff Nichols. I found that unexpected and improbable, given the only other movie of his I've seen, the sci-fi tinged family drama Midnight Special. It seemed like quite a change-up. Still, I quite liked that movie, and the way the personal stakes of its story remained front and center throughout. Maybe Nichols was the right person to tell the Loving story.

Richard and Mildred Loving were not a particularly outgoing couple. The fact that they were living together in violation of the law no doubt magnified their already quiet personalities. So if told accurately, this was never going to be a movie in which they gave bombastic, Oscar-baiting speeches. Still, it's so understated that it often feels like nothing is happening.

Interestingly, the movie is so matter of fact about their relationship that it doesn't even get into their legal troubles until 15-20 minutes in. I found myself thinking that someone coming into this film without knowing the story, someone without racial prejudice, might well wonder what the hell it's all about. When the movie does get there, it does enter its strongest section: an impactful display of what it's like to deal with bigotry -- both casual and overt -- on a regular basis.

But when things finally do turn to the court case, I found myself wanting more. Historical fact, combined with the writer's choice of perspective, combined to deny that. The Lovings did not even attend the hearing at the Supreme Court, and the movie makes the decision to remain grounded completely in their perspective. While I appreciate the impulse to keep it their story, it means we never get the triumphant moment where their argument is aired forcefully in public. There's no "yeah, take that haters!" moment in this film, even when the case is won. The Lovings just keep on living their lives.

It's something of a wonder that Ruth Negga received an Oscar nomination here for her performance as Mildred Loving -- not because it's bad work, but because it's so muted and restrained, so not the sort of work that normally garners Oscar attention, that I'm not sure how it broke through. Joel Edgerton has the volume dialed down even more as Richard Loving, giving the most subtle and understated performance of the film and his career.

The actors with the most to do in terms of flash also have very little to do in terms of their actual time in the movie. Nick Kroll, normally known for comedy, plays an ACLU lawyer. Marton Csokas gives us our villain to sneer at as a racist local sheriff. Michael Shannon plays a photographer for LIFE magazine. The three appear collectively in perhaps a quarter of the movie.

So once again, I find myself praising the actual story of the Lovings, hoping that more people knew of it... only to have another movie I can't really recommend to anyone. Loving is just too dry, too soft-spoken, to trumpet their courage in the way it deserves. I give it a D+. Stick with the documentary, or perhaps better still, the actual Supreme Court ruling that bears the Lovings' name.