Monday, September 01, 2014

Re-Rio

After generally enjoying Rio when I finally saw it earlier this year, I was willing to give this year's sequel a chance. But as is so often the case with sequels, Rio 2 fell short of the original.

In most movies based around a couple in which one half is a "fish out of water," the sequel is inevitably based around reversing the roles. So I suppose some credit is due to the creators of Rio 2 for not taking the obvious path of taking Jewel to the U.S. for new adventures; instead, the story doubles down on Blu's awkwardness by sending him and his new family into the Amazon. And if the movie had stayed centered on that idea, it might have been fairly good.

Instead, Rio 2 is stuffed with so many ideas and so many subplots that it's a bit of a crowded mess. Sidekicks Nico and Pedro are planning to hold a talent competition in the jungle. Evil adversary Nigel happens to run into Blu, and is determined to chase him down for revenge. There's also a turf rivalry between groups of Spix's Macaws and Scarlet Macaws. And an evil band of loggers threatening to destroy them all.

The busy story matches the loud visuals -- though the movie is quite successful on that front. Few animated movies have ever been as bright and colorful as this, and the musical numbers sprinkled throughout revel in fun, over-the-top flash. The wealth of CG animated movies these days has all but killed the age of "how did they do that?", but this movie at the very least conjures a respectful "that was a hell of a lot of work."

The entire voice cast from the first film returns. (Perhaps including them all is a major reason the creators decided to keep their story set in South America.) Joining them are a host of new performers, including Andy Garcia, Bruno Mars, Kristin Chenoweth, Rita Moreno, and Miguel Ferrer. It's frankly too large a cast for any of them to truly shine, though Kristin Chenoweth does come close to stealing the show with a funny love song written for her character, an amorous poison dart frog.

If you don't mind the almost schizophrenic nature of the movie, it is enjoyable enough. Still, it's nothing exceptional, and would probably wear out quickly if you had a kid who wanted to watch it all the time. I give Rio 2 a middle-of-the-road C.

Friday, August 29, 2014

TNG Flashback: Half a Life

In reviewing episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've often been critical of stories that focus too heavily on the guest stars, to the exclusion of the main characters. It may be that no episode in the entire series did so more than "Half a Life."

An alien scientist, Timicin, comes aboard the Enterprise to test his method for rejuvenating his planet's dying sun. In the process, he strikes up a relationship with Counselor Troi's mother, Lwaxana. But soon it's revealed that on Timicin's planet, people at age 60 are expected to take part in a ritual suicide called the "Resolution" -- and that he's only days shy of that mark. Worse, when his experiment fails, he questions whether any other scientists from his world will be able to take up his work after his death and save the sun before it fails completely.

If the writers were going to center an episode around its guest characters, they at least set themselves up for the greatest chance of success. For the critical role of Timicin, they cast the brilliant David Ogden Stiers. IMdB lists more than 150 credits to his name, and though I'll probably never see them all, I can say I've never seen him in any role of substance where he was any less than brilliant. He has a wonderfully real, yet carefully understated method of performing that instantly draws the audience in. Here, he has several incredibly challenging scenes, but handles them all with skill. When Timicin's experiment fails, you can feel the crushing weight he feels: a life's work wasted, and all for nothing. When he explains the reasoning behind the custom of the Resolution, he does so in a way that makes it more than a "wacky sci-fi premise"; you can actually almost believe a society might find it logical.

Then, of course, there was Majel Barrett. In a way, she was almost "family" and not a guest star, having appeared three other times as Lwaxana Troi, and of course providing the voice of the ship's computer virtually every week. But the decision to use her here in a dramatic storyline, rather than as comic relief, was a very risky one. Frankly, there are moments in the episode where she's not quite up to the challenge -- her breakdown to Deanna in the transporter room feels a bit manufactured, for example. Still, she holds her own in her scenes with Stiers, nailing the two critical moments on which the story really hangs: first, the scathing "if your planet's time has come, why save it?" moment that drives Timicin to seek asylum; and lastly, the closing moment in which Lwaxana accompanies Timicin to his Resolution.

There's also one more important guest star here that you might otherwise forget was in this episode: Michelle Forbes. She has a single scene as Timicin's daughter Dara. It's not a very long scene, but it's a dense and layered one. Dara pleads with her father to go through with the Resolution, curses Lwaxana for corrupting him, and ultimately disowns him as someone she no longer knows. Forbes hits every beat perfectly, and is just as strong in her performance as David Ogden Stiers is in his. She reportedly made such an impact on the producers that they thought of her when they were casting for Ensign Ro Laren just a short while later. If they had any concern about using the same actor twice so soon, and so recognizably, the summer hiatus between seasons and the quality of her work here clearly put any such concerns at bay.

From one point of view, this story of this episode isn't particularly original. Compulsory suicide has been examined in other sci-fi settings, most notoriously in Logan's Run. But the writing here is clever enough to bring some new things to the table. It's the first Star Trek script from Peter Allan Fields, who would later contribute two more episodes of The Next Generation (including the brilliant "The Inner Light") and 10 episodes of Deep Space Nine.

For one thing, there's coy dialogue leading up to the big reveal. Timicin talks wistfully of wanting to rescue his planet's sun before he dies, and of a wife who died a few years earlier. There are well crafted lines, such as Deanna's comfort to her mother: "You will never be one of those who dies before they die." But on a deeper level, it's nice to see an older couple falling so quickly and completely in love -- a bit of a rarity for television. And the debate about the Resolution between Lwaxana and Timicin does really raise some provocative points about assisted suicide. (Though, of course, the notion of it being mandatory does place quite a weight on the scales.) There's also a thoughtful reflection on the impact a single revolutionary can have in a defiant act against a long-standing custom. And there's even a brush against the subject of religion, when Lwaxana realizes that in puncturing Timicin's belief in the Resolution, she's taken his "faith" away from him. It's a shame the story doesn't find a way to use more of the main characters in better ways, but it's otherwise a very solid script.

Other observations:
  • This may be a serious episode overall, but Lwaxana is still used for comic moments early on. Patrick Stewart plays a great beat at the top of the show, with Picard nervously on the lookout for her. And Lwaxana calls our resident Klingon "Mr. Woof" for the first time.
  • Marina Sirtis was gracious to share her on-screen mother with other actors in this episode. In a later interview, she said: "I didn't have much to do, which is good since I don't want it to be a given that every time mom comes aboard, I have to deal with her. I think it's more interesting that when she does come back, other characters have to deal with her."
  • Director Les Landau saw parallels between this episode and another he directed earlier, "Sarek," as both dealt with the issue of old age. And perhaps when you look at the mental deterioration of the esteemed Vulcan in that episode, you can begin to see the point of view the alien race of this episode.
While this episode wasn't nearly as strong as the several before it, it was probably the best Lwaxana Troi installment of the series. I give it a B.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Grand Movie

I've seen only a few of writer-director Wes Anderson's films, but that's all I really needed to see to know that he has a very particular style. It's on full display in his latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A nested narrative spanning four time frames (though set primarily in the 1930s), the film tells the story of the Gustave H, concierge/lothario of fictitious hotel. He and his protege, a young lobby boy, are swept up in a web of intrigue when an old woman dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving Gustave an extremely valuable painting in her will. Rival heirs seek to reclaim the art and frame Gustave for a murder they themselves may have carried out. Hijinks ensue.

I can't think of a stronger example of "conspicuous film making" than this. Every frame is self aware, and crafted to call attention to itself. It starts with Wes Anderson's choice to shoot each time frame in a different aspect ratio -- with the largest part framed in 1.33, the old television (and even older film) ratio. The black bars on the left and right edges of the screen create the impression of looking at a storybook, and the visuals only underscore this. Wise location shots are created with models, chase sequences realized with obvious rear projection, and some elements of the sets are clearly non-functional.

Framing for the narrow screen size defies many of the conventions an audience has come to expect in this age of widescreen. And it leads to even more conspicuous Anderson trickery. Characters who are placed very close to each other in profile shots are suddenly much farther away when cutting to closeups. Sudden pans are used to reveal things that would have been visible all along in a more conventional format. And all this playfulness is absolutely part of the intended effect: a story that does not pretend to pass itself off as reality.

Another way the audience is kept at arm's length is the cast, a long, long list of faces so recognizable, each one briefly pulls you out of the narrative. Ralph Fiennes is the charismatic Gustave H. His lobby boy Zero is played by Tony Revolori -- likely the only face in the film you won't recognize. Otherwise, each new scene seemingly brings a new star: Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban... on and on and on. Nor does Anderson try to channel their performances in a way that makes them feel like they belong in the same film together. There is no consistent accent suggesting a single location; every performer speaks in his or her own voice. Often, the performers are deliberately affecting a cliche version of themselves; Willem Dafoe mugs for the camera, Jeff Goldblum bites off his dialogue in his characteristic way, Bill Murray doesn't really seem to be acting, and so forth.

The result is more confection than film, a sugary sweet tale that will absolutely be too weird for most people. I have to include myself in that, to some extent. While I certainly recognized and appreciated the cinematic vision here, I can't say I always enjoyed it. The tale didn't seem to amount to much. For my money, winking at convention can be a fun diversion within a film, but I don't believe it justifies an entire film.

Still, it's at least somewhat enjoyable as art. I'd call it a C+ overall. If quirky is your thing, you should probably check it out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Viva La Revolutions

Last year, I wrote about the special 2-disc soundtrack album La-La Land Records released for The Matrix Reloaded. Since then, the company has gone on to complete the trilogy with another 2-disc album for The Matrix Revolutions. It's widely agreed that the third Matrix film was an ignominious end for the series, but that's nothing to be held against composer Don Davis, who served the final film as ably as its two predecessors.

The music of the Matrix trilogy is an odd thing. On the one hand, if I were to play the opening fanfare of the films, the famous call-and-answer of loud brass chords, a great many people would be able to identify it and the movies it came from -- even people who don't normally notice movie music. On the other hand, if I were to ask someone -- even a film score enthusiast -- to hum the tune of any song from a Matrix film, they'd be hard-pressed to do so. That's because even though the music of The Matrix is engaging and appropriate, it's almost entirely devoid of any recognizable melodies. In fact, it's something like the kind of music Rick Berman wanted for the Star Trek TV series he produced, a sort of musical wallpaper that rarely draws specific attention to itself. But it's the best possible version of that idea, a score that despite lacking for melody is replete with force, excitement, and energy. (It's perhaps not surprising that Don Davis actually scored a few Star Trek episodes earlier in his career.)

The Matrix Revolutions really represents Davis reaching the pinnacle of this non-melodic style. The score is a torrential sonic downpour that carries you away better than the movie itself. Powerful brass build up dissonant chords one note at a time. Wailing strings skip around from octave to octave, taking time in each to whirl up and down the scale. Military snare drums beat rat-a-tat sprays of sixteenth notes that ratchet the tension ever higher. Flutes write around the scale like snakes as someone pounds on low piano keys, all accompanied by harsh synthesizer drones. You may not be conscious of the music as you watch the movie (if you watch the movie; man, that third movie is just so bad), but listening to it in isolation really gets the pulse racing.

The music even reaches a literal apex in the opening notes. That famous Matrix theme I mentioned? In each successive film, Davis transposes it upward a half-step. Here, the final film opens with some instruments at the very top of their registers, and it's easy to imagine performers pouring everything into it.

The crowning moment of the score is the final confrontation between Neo and Agent Smith(s), a piece entitled "Neodämmerung." It's the most prominent use of choir in the entire trilogy, a strong chant somewhat evocative of the famous opening to Carmina Burana. Where most of the choral passages in the score use the human voice in amorphous ooos and aaahs, "Neodämmerung" gives them specific lyrics in a foreign language, lending an appropriately liturgical cast.

Once again, the Wachowskis wanted a techno influence in the music, and asked Don Davis to collaborate with the group Juno Reactor -- as in The Matrix Reloaded. If there were any bumps in this collaboration the first time around, they seem to have smoothed out by this final film. The three hybrid tracks are among the best on the soundtrack. "The Trainman Cometh" uses staccato electronic percussion reminiscent of Danny Elfman's Planet of the Apes score (another instance where the music far surpassed the film for which it was written). "Tetsujin" starts out almost as a pastiche of the old Kung Fu television series before erupting into a full-on techno-orchestral assault. And "Navras," created for the end credits, is essentially a techno remix of the pivotal "Neodämmerung" track, weaving in interesting Middle Eastern influences. In fact, the opening of "Navras" is such a get-you-psyched passage of music that the Colorado Avalanche were using it during this past spring's playoff run to introduce the team in home games.

All that said, while this third film might represent the best soundtrack of the series from the view of a musicologist or theorist, it may actually be slightly weaker for the average listener. There's actually less action in the final Matrix film overall, and as a result less action music in the score. Nevertheless, if I give this album only a B compared to the higher marks of the previous scores, I'd still call it a must-have for film music enthusiasts.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Drumhead

When "The Drumhead" originally aired near the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fourth season, it's probably safe to say that I was too self-absorbed in my adolescence to fully appreciate the bigger picture meaning of the episode. I didn't think it was "bad," but I certainly didn't think it was anything special. Coming to back to it now, after more than two decades, I suspected I would find more there.

When a Klingon exchange officer aboard the Enterprise steals classified information for the Romulans and apparently sabotages the warp core, an investigation begins. Retired Admiral Norah Satie arrives to root out any co-conspirators the Klingon might have had. But her search turns into a witch hunt when a timid young officer falls into her crosshairs for lying about his quarter-Romulan lineage. And soon, Captain Picard himself comes under her scrutiny.

This episode had a somewhat desperate origin. The season's budget had been overrun, and the studio was demanding that it be balanced. They asked for another clip show, along the lines of the dreadful "Shades of Gray." Executive producer Rick Berman and head writer Michael Piller were adamantly against the notion, and promised to come up with a money-saving alternative episode that could be filmed on existing sets, without significant visual effects.

The core idea itself came from staff writer Ronald Moore, a concept he called "It Can't Happen Here." (It seemed very much in sync with themes he would later explore on Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica.) Another staff writer, Jeri Taylor, fleshed out the actual script. She was inspired in large part by actual history, particularly the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials. The result, she felt, was the best script she ever contributed to the series.

And indeed it was strong, not only for the way it believably channeled history, but for the timelessness of the episode, and the sad way it remains extremely relevant today. The railroading of quarter-Romulan Simon Tarses is a pure and ugly portrayal of racial profiling. It easily calls to mind anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of the September 11th attacks. And it's an easy analogy for still more scenarios with which different viewers might feel different connections. I myself, for example, see Tarses' concealment of his Romulan grandfather as an obvious metaphor for hiding one's homosexuality -- particularly for people in the military before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or for anyone in any government job just a few decades before that. (Or, sadly, for LGBT people today in the 29 U.S. states with no employment protections against sexual orientation discrimination.)

There are still other analogies one can draw from this episode. The use of a Betazoid as a means for truth verification feels like the suspect results of a lie detector test. The continued hunt for a conspiracy even after the warp explosion is revealed to be an accident feels just like a politician doggedly pursuing an agenda long after its pretext is exposed as false. And when Admiral Satie taunts Picard about his experience with the Borg, it's not unlike a person blaming the victim of a rape for the crime.

These lofty ideas are presented well thanks in large part to some strong guest stars. Spencer Garrett plays the nervous Simon Tarses, holding his own in scenes that feature some real acting heavyweights. One of those is Jean Simmons, the two-time Oscar nominee and Emmy winner who plays Admiral Satie. If the fire in her performance feels Shakespearean, it's no coincidence; one of those nominations was for playing Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. Even the bit players make an impact. Earl Billings doesn't have a single line as Admiral Henry, but the camera keeps cutting to his reactions during the episode's climatic scene, and his forceful exit from the room tells you all you need to know.

If the big ideas and strong performances in this episode don't do it for you, the sheer volume of connections to earlier episodes ought to be enough to thrill any longtime fan. Besides the Borg reference, we get a mention of the last Starfleet conspiracy, a return of the interspecies exchange program, a repeat performance of Riker as lawyer, and a callback to the recent escape of a Romulan spy. Plus, of course, there's an important subplot for Worf that follows up on his discommendation; Satie's interrogator throws in Worf's face the "fact" that his father was a Romulan traitor, while the Klingon spy believes he can bribe an apparently dishonorable man like Worf. Indeed, Worf's initial zeal for the witch hunt feels like his way of overcompensating for the shame he feels among his people.

This episode also marks the return of Jonathan Frakes to the director's chair, for the third time. This episode was his most dialogue-driven yet, and shows his clear knack for working with actors to get a good performance. He also did his cinematic homework; he revealed in subsequent interviews that his staging of certain scenes was deliberately meant to evoke moments from the movies Judgment at Nuremberg and The Caine Mutiny.

But another stint behind the scenes came to an end with this episode. Composer Ron Jones was fired from the series by executive producer Rick Berman, who told Jones just before he began work on this score that it would be his last. After nearly four years of wonderful and bombastic scores that didn't fit his vision for inconspicuous mood music, Berman had had enough. In a sad irony, this episode's score was exactly the sort of quiet and atmospheric composition Jones had almost never turned in. Jones indicated in subsequent interviews that he felt this episode was so driven by the acting (and effectively so), that he wanted to music to just step back and make room for it.

Berman approached the series' other regular composer, Dennis McCarthy, and invited him to become the sole composer for The Next Generation. McCarthy turned down the offer due to his workload on other projects outside Star Trek, so Jay Chattaway was brought in as Jones' replacement, continuing the alternating schedule between two regular composers.

Other observations:
  • Although it is nice that the sympathetic Picard reaches out to Simon Tarses for a private meeting, it's bad lawyering on Riker's part to allow it to happen. Picard is technically part of the investigating team, after all.
  • In an interview, Michael Dorn cited this as one of his two favorite episodes of the series. He has a notable role in this one, unlike his other pick, "The Offspring." Interestingly, both episodes were directed by Jonathan Frakes. (And I think that's not a coincidence, but rather another sign of Frakes' skill in working with actors.)
  • Picard has many powerful lines throughout, but the sentiment with which he closes the episode may be the best of all: "[S]he or someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay."

For the third episode in a row, I find myself handing out an A- grade. For so late in a season, when the grind of television production is often weighing a series down, this was a particularly strong run for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Monday, August 25, 2014

2 Much

After the 2012's The Amazing Spider-man, I was eager to see what the assembled group could do with a sequel. Though I was bored by the first film's unnecessary rehash of the character's origin story, I loved the casting and felt there was good potential for the follow-up. But then the reviews came out for The Amazing Spider-man 2, and they were generally unkind. I decided I'd wait for Blu-ray and catch up then. As it turned out, lowered expectations were a good thing; the movie was not the embarrassing disaster I'd been led to believe.

Again, as with the first installment, you can thank the cast for everything that's good about the movie. Andrew Garfield is still a fun and exuberant hero. Emma Stone again makes Gwen Stacy a more witty and potent character than the original trilogy's Mary Jane Watson. Together, the two are an immensely likeable couple with charisma and chemistry to spare. Sally Field shines once again as Aunt May, bringing great emotional weight to her too few, too brief scenes. Campbell Scott, returning for a more expanded role as Peter Parker's father, brings similar pathos.

The new cast members are quite good too. Jamie Foxx makes a painfully awkward Max Dillon (if a somewhat less effective) Electro. Dane DeHann offers a quite different and more nuanced take on Harry Osborn than the original trilogy's James Franco, at times both more and less pitiable, and certainly a more credible villain-in-the-making. Paul Giamatti has little screen time, but chews the scenery with relish during his scenes. And Chris Cooper manages to make Norman Osborn sufficiently contemptible, even though the few moments in which we see him afford little opportunity.

The actors are great, and so individual moments -- even whole scenes -- really do shine because of it. But the story itself is an overcrowded mess. Ultimately, it feels like the longest "scenes from next week's episode" trailer for a TV show you've ever seen. Because the writers are trying to fit so much into one movie, each of the different subplots is missing one or two of the scenes it needed to be told well. Dillon/Electro goes from idolizing Spider-man to despising him in the span of a single scene, and with no apparent justification deeper than "he's crazy." Aunt May is sacrificing to find money to put Peter through college... except we don't know what Peter hopes to study, or if he's even planning to go to college at all. We're told about the long time friendship between Peter and Harry, but there really isn't much time spent showing it. Gwen and Peter (minor spoiler) break up with little justification for "why now and not sooner?" and then get back together later with no work at all, because there simply isn't time for friction.

But at least all that stuff gets more space than the perfunctory set-up for Sony's version of "Marvel's Cinematic Universe." Every movie studio with a comic book license has made no secret of the fact that they're trying to get themselves a billion-dollar Avengers-style blockbuster with a raft of related movies. Here, those efforts lead unsatisfying results. Some flaws are easily overlooked or forgiven, like the odd casting of B.J. Novak for a handful of lines (just because he's meant to be a supervillain in some later film), or the squandering of someone with the acting chops of Paul Giamatti when you could have gotten any muscle-bound former athlete to play his tiny role here. But then there are the significant plot developments crammed into an almost-epilogue after the wrapping up of the Electro plotline -- events that really deserved their own film. Ten minutes of the film carry so much weight, in such a compressed span of time, that it crushes the life out of the finale.

There's also something that apparently had comic fans complaining, the teasing of a future involving the Sinister Six by way of showing their signature gear in the background during a scene set in an Oscorp vault. As comic purists, those people voiced objections to the way these villains' origins have all been disposed of, apparently in favor of making Oscorp the root of all evil. As a non-comic purist, I'll voice my own skepticism of this change: it seems to me that it reduces all of these potential characters to a simplistic parade of psychopaths, each armed with a different bit of secret military hardware. I'm not tantalized, I'm fearing monotony.

But ultimately, I have to say that The Amazing Spider-man 2 is worth seeing. The whole is hopelessly flawed, but the parts are fantastic. Almost every single scene that comes is wonderfully realized as an island unto itself. Each made me long for the more sensible, less compressed movie in which that moment would be a vital part. When the scenes lasted long enough, I would forget the short attention span whole and just enjoy it for what it was -- and that happened enough for me to give the movie a B overall. But I also think the reported delay on The Amazing Spider-man 3 is wise. The creative forces behind this franchise should rethink trying to cram decades of comic history into a mere two hours.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Into the Deep

I recently got to play the board game Lords of Waterdeep. It's themed in the Forgotten Realms universe (one of the established worlds of Dungeons & Dragons). I feel like I've seen other D&D board games come and go over the years, and my casual assessment of them is that they've been aimed generally at the Talisman crowd. The games come with loads of bits, take hours and hours to play, and are fine if you don't mind that luck overwhelms any element of strategy present. Lord of Waterdeep seemed to be trying for a different audience, the strategic "Euro game" crowd. But in my opinion, the game missed the mark.

Lords of Waterdeep is a worker placement, resource gathering game. Players have a series of Quest cards (and can acquire more during play). Each quest requires certain resources in certain quantities. When completed, the quests provide a variety of rewards, and a certain number of victory points (scaled to the difficulty in completing the quest). Players compete to get the resources needed for their quests by placing workers onto the spaces of a large game board. As in some other games (Caylus comes to mind, in particular), new spaces with new options are added throughout the game, and can be "owned" by individual players -- who reap rewards when their opponents use them.

Despite being dressed up in the trappings of a Euro game, Lords of Waterdeep still felt to me like it bore the hallmark of those other D&D games: luck overwhelmed the strategy. This wasn't in a readily obvious way, as the game did dispense with overtly random elements like dice to establish its strategy game credentials.

The problem for me was those quest cards. Set aside the question of whether or not the designers properly balanced each quest's difficulty with its payoff. (Though I'm rather doubtful they did.) Quests had a rather wide range of difficulties, from almost trivially easy to supremely difficult. Most quests provided some sort of ongoing benefit to the player completing them. This effectively put a ladder-like structure in place. A player really needed to finish an easy quest (or quests) early to enable the rewards that would allow an intermediate quest. That in turn would grease the skids for the difficult quests.

But all these quests were shuffled together in a single deck, with each player randomly being dealt two to start the game. Some players would randomly receive great building blocks to begin their game, while others would be hamstrung with impossible tasks that stymied early progress. Players in the latter camp could use game mechanics to draw new quests, of course, but this would put them actions behind the players with luckier draws -- and put them into direct competition with other stymied opponents, thus providing even more advantage to the fortunate.

There are lots of other Euro games with similar kinds of "objective" cards -- Louis XIV and Yedo are two that come to mind. The key difference is that in those games, the cards are divided into separate decks of different difficulties. In my opinion, Lords of Waterdeep is critically flawed for not doing the same thing. I suppose players could easily implement a house rule to do this (if they could agree on which cards belong in which decks), but I personally feel like I'd rather just play one of those other games that got it right, rather than try to modify this game.

It's possible I'm judging the game too harshly from a single playthrough. But it was a rather unpleasant playthrough where I felt behind the curve from square one. (And from what I could tell, I wasn't the only player in that position.) The components are good, and the overall concept decent enough, but I don't really see myself trying Lords of Waterdeep again. I give it a C-.